- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2019

An Oklahoma judge ruled Monday that Johnson & Johnson was responsible for the opioid epidemic “ravaging” the state and ordered the medical products company to pay $572 million to address the crisis.

It was the first court ruling in a government lawsuit against a drugmaker and could influence hundreds of other cases involving pharmaceutical firms.

Calling the opioid crisis a “danger and menace” to Oklahomans, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said attorneys for the state had proved their case that Johnson & Johnson and its Belgian subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, helped create an opioid addiction crisis.

The state filed its lawsuit seeking $17.5 billion in damages and abatement costs. The $572 million ordered by the judge is more than double what Oklahoma is to receive in a settlement with another drugmaker.

The judge ruled that the company’s misleading marketing created a “public nuisance” that compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans.

“Defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome,” Judge Balkman said in court in Norman. “The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma. It must be abated immediately.”

Attorneys for the state stressed in their arguments that about 6,000 Oklahomans had died of opioid overdoses since 2000.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said the judge affirmed the state’s position that Johnson & Johnson “maliciously and diabolically” created the opioid epidemic.

“We have proven that Johnson & Johnson built its billion dollar brand out of greed and on the backs of pain and suffering of innocent people,” said Mr. Hunter, claiming the company used pseudoscience to market its opiate medications. “It is my hope that this judgment will provide some solace to the thousands of families who have tragically lost a loved one due to an opioid overdose.”

Johnson & Johnson, based in New Jersey, released a statement saying it plans to appeal.

“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” Michael Ullmann, executive vice president and general counsel for Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement issued to press Monday afternoon. “We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”

The company argued that the drugs at the center of the lawsuit — Duragesic (also known as fentanyl), Nucynta and Nucynta ER — accounted for less than 1% of total opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma.

The ruling could set a precedent for as many as 1,500 other lawsuits brought by state and local governments against pharmaceutical companies. A federal judge in Ohio is presiding over a consolidated hearing of those lawsuits.

Jeffrey Simon, a lawyer for Simon Greenstone Panatier P.C. who is litigating Texas’ first opioid trial in the fall 2020, said Judge Balkman’s ruling validates claims against brand-name drug manufacturers that their misleading marketing led to increased opioid prescription, consumption, addiction and overdose deaths.

Before Oklahoma’s trial began May 28, the state reached settlements with two other defendant groups: a $270 million deal with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and an $85 million settlement with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., The Associated Press reported.

Teva, which is facing other lawsuits, said it respectfully disagrees with Monday’s decision and that the ruling supports the rationale for a settlement before trial.

“We fundamentally disagree with the notion that FDA approved drugs for treating patients, including end of life cancer pain, can be considered a public nuisance. And we continue to believe that the courtroom is not the right place to address this epidemic as we prepare to vigorously defend ourselves in the upcoming litigation in Ohio,” a Teva spokesperson said.

Judge Balkman did not read from his 42-page ruling, which culminated an eight-week trial in which the state and Johnson & Johnson brought nearly 50 witnesses.

During the trial, Brad Beckworth, an attorney for the state, accused the company of falsely marketing its opioid medications and contributing to the ongoing epidemic.

“Johnson & Johnson engaged on a path to market opioid drugs as safer than they are and more effective than they are for everyday pain,” he said in his closing statement. “If you oversupply opioids, you get death.”

In remarks after the trial, Mr. Hunter said the pharmaceutical company has been the principal source for the active ingredient in prescription opioids for the past two decades.

He accused Johnson & Johnson of conspiring with other opioid makers to distort policies around prescribing and said charging the company under a public nuisance law was an “elegantly tailored remedy.”

The defense counsel argued that the state was trying to blame Johnson & Johnson for damages without evidence that it caused the crisis. John Sparks, the company’s attorney, said the state did not identify a single doctor in Oklahoma who was misled by the company or prove that it misleadingly marketed opioids or caused any harm in the state.

“The state’s attempt to resolve this tremendously complex social problem with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and legally unsustainable,” Mr. Sparks said.

In July closing arguments, Janssen attorney Larry Ottaway said the state was lying about the root cause of opioid addiction: chronic pain.

“We have never denied the effects of opioid addiction, but they [the state] has denied this,” said Mr. Ottaway, displaying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing 1 in 5 adults living with chronic pain. He asked why the Oklahoma Drug Utilization Review Board even approved opioids going back decades and still offers insurance to prescribed users if they are a public nuisance.

“These drugs help these patients function,” Mr. Ottaway said.

The CDC has recorded nearly 400,000 opioid-related deaths from 1999 to 2017.

The agency predicts 68,500 died from an opioid-related overdose last year based on preliminary data.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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