The first opioid civil trial in the United States has wrapped in Oklahoma. A decision in the trial, in which Johnson & Johnson is the sole defendant, could be the first to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for one of the worst drug epidemics in the nation’s history.
Johnson & Johnson Sole Defendant in Opioid Civil Trial
The trial took place over seven weeks at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, OK. Attorneys for both sides presented closing arguments on July 15, 2019. The lawsuit, filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, alleges that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals helped ignite the opioid crisis with overly aggressive marketing, resulting in thousands of overdose deaths over the past decade in Oklahoma alone.
“What is truly unprecedented here is the conduct of these defendants on embarking on a cunning, cynical, and deceitful scheme to create the need for opioids,” said Hunter.
The state urged Judge Thad Balkman, who presides over the trial, to find the company liable for creating a “public nuisance” and to force it to pay $17.5 billion over a period of thirty years to help “abate” Oklahoma’s public health crisis.
During closing arguments, Brad Beckworth, one of the state’s attorneys, cited alarming prescription statistics in Cleveland County, where the trial took place.
“What we do have in Cleveland County is 135 prescription opioids for every adult,” said Beckworth. “Those didn’t get here from drug cartels. They got here from one cartel: the pharmaceutical industry cartel. And the kingpin of it all is Johnson & Johnson.”
Initially, Oklahoma’s opioid lawsuit also included Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and Jerusalem’s Teva Pharmaceuticals as defendants. In March 2019, however, Purdue Pharma settled with the state for $270 million. Two days before the trial began, Teva Pharmaceuticals also announced a settlement with the state in the amount of $85 million. The money is to be used for litigation costs and “to abate the opioid crisis in Oklahoma.”
Judge Balkman is expected to announce a verdict in August. If he agrees with the state’s claim, he could choose to award the full $17.5 billion or just some portion of it.
Ruling Could Impact Other Opioid Lawsuits
Most states and over 1,600 local and tribal governments are suing opioid manufacturers and drug distributors in an effort to recoup the billions of dollars spent addressing the human costs of opioid addiction. Oklahoma’s legal team has based its case on a claim of public nuisance, which refers to actions that harm members of the public, including injury to public health. Other states have their own public nuisance statutes.
Much is riding on the outcome of this first opioid civil trial. Analysts have said that a ruling against Johnson & Johnson could compel other drug companies to settle their lawsuits out of court. However, a victory for Johnson & Johnson could embolden the pharmaceutical industry in other cases.
Sobering Numbers in National Opioid Crisis
The ongoing national opioid crisis remains devastating to public health. As prescriptions for powerful opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Fentanyl, and Hydrocodone have quadrupled over the past quarter century – from 76 million in 1991 to nearly 300 million in 2014 – the number of Americans addicted to these drugs has reached epidemic proportions.
With a rise in opioid addiction has come a rise in the number of overdose deaths. In 2016 alone, the country saw approximately 71,614 fatal overdoses, with more than 74 percent of those involving natural or synthetic opioids, heroin, or methadone. Recent statistics reveal that more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids.
The problem has grown so rampant that on March 22, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration declared opioid addiction a “public health crisis” and began implementing class-wide safety labeling changes for opioid pain medications, including boxed warnings about the “serious risks of misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose, and death.”