Oklahoma judge orders Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million in bellwether opioid case

A US judge has ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million for contributing to an opioid crisis in Oklahoma, where the state's attorney general had been seeking damages of more than $17 billion. District court Judge Thad Balkman said "the state met its burden that...Johnson & Johnson's misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance as defined by [state law], including a finding that those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans." 

In addition to arguing that Johnson & Johnson improperly marketed Duragesic (fentanyl) and Nucynta (tapentadol), Oklahoma also claimed that two of the company's subsidiaries had supplied active pharmaceutical ingredients and narcotic raw materials to other drugmakers for their own opioid analgesics.

In response to the verdict, Johnson & Johnson general counsel Michael Ullmann said the "flawed" decision is a "misapplication of public nuisance law that has already been rejected by judges in other states." He added "the unprecedented award for [Oklahoma's] 'abatement plan' has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the company’s medicines or conduct." Johnson & Johnson, which plans to appeal the ruling, also noted that since their launch, the drugs Duragesic, Nucynta and Nucynta ER have accounted for less than 1% of all opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma, as well as the US. "The FDA-approved labels of these medicines provide clear information about their risks and benefits," it added.

Commenting on the news, Jefferies healthcare strategist Jared Holz said "the expectation was this was going to be a $1.5-billion to $2-billion fine," adding that "$572 million is a much lower number than had been feared." Legal analysts have viewed the trial as a litmus test for plaintiffs of some 1900 pending cases against Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers that were consolidated and transferred to a federal judge in Ohio.

Johnson & Johnson was the remaining defendant in the Oklahoma case, after Purdue agreed to pay $270 million to resolve charges against it in March, while Teva reached an $85-million settlement with Oklahoma in May. 

The latest news also comes as a lawsuit filed by two Ohio counties accusing drugmakers of fuelling the opioid crisis is scheduled to begin trial in October. Earlier this month, Endo and Allergan entered into settlements of $10 million and $5 million, respectively, ahead of the trial. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson is also one of six drugmakers to be named in a New York lawsuit accusing the companies of false and deceptive marketing regarding prescription opioids. 

For related analysis, see ViewPoints: Johnson & Johnson’s loss in opioid case seen as win for industry

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