The state of Oklahoma has been going after the drug companies at the center of the opioid epidemic, and on Monday, state attorneys won their first case: a civil suit against Johnson & Johnson. Bringing an end to a seven-week civil trial, Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of Oklahoma, finding that Johnson & Johnson’s marketing practices fueled a statewide opioid crisis that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people. As part of Judge Balkman’s decision, Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma. Immediately after the ruling, the drug company issued a statement vowing to appeal the decision.

How Johnson & Johnson Ignited a Lethal Public Health Crisis in Oklahoma

“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Judge Thad Balkman said in his Monday ruling against Johnson & Johnson. Throughout the case, state attorneys brought forward evidence outlining exactly how dangerous and how menacing opioids are. They showed how Oklahomans are suffering from worsening rates of addiction, increasing overdose deaths and rising rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome. And they linked that data to Johnson & Johnson’s marketing of the opioid painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta.

“The state met its burden [of proof],” Balkman said, and proved that Johnson and Johnson was engaged in the “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids.”

As a result of the judge’s decision, Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to the state. In fact, Balkman’s ruling is the first in the United States to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for the ongoing opioid epidemic. That means the ruling could set an important precedent for thousands of other cases pending against drug companies across the United States.

Johnson & Johnson Will Appeal Oklahoma Judge’s Ruling

In its civil suit against Johnson & Johnson, Oklahoma attorneys sought damages of $17 billion. The $572 million the company was ordered to pay is just a fraction of that (3 percent). Still, Johnson & Johnson denies any wrongdoing. In a statement issued immediately after the federal court’s ruling, the company announced “plans to appeal the opioid judgement in Oklahoma.”

It’s the same approach being taken by another drug company, Teva Pharmaceuticals of Jerusalem, which announced an $85 million settlement with Oklahoma two days ahead of the trial against Johnson & Johnson. Teva also denies any wrongdoing.

The lawyer behind the opioid cases, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, has also filed suit against Allergan and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. In March 2019, Purdue Pharma settled with the state for $270 million. The initial lawsuits alleged dozens of civil claims, but as the trial against Johnson & Johnson grew closer, Hunter dropped all but one of the claims. “Our strongest cause of action against the defendants was public nuisance,” Hunter said in April.

Oklahoma had a strong case against Purdue Pharma. For evidence, it had the headline-gripping depositions of the Sackler family and internal emails and documents. But there were worries that state attorneys didn’t have enough evidence against Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals. Judge Balkman, however, found that the state made its case.

Fines and Damages Will Pay for Addiction Treatment and Recovery

Oklahoma says it’s taking the money from its cases against opioid epidemic-fueling drug companies and spending it on combating addiction. At Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, $200 million of the $270 settlement with Purdue Pharma will fund an addiction research and treatment center. At the same time, Oklahoma’s growing medical cannabis program is providing patients with alternatives to opioid-based medications.

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