Oklahoma Is Successful In Its Suit Against Opioid Manufacturer

Aug 27, 2019
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Yesterday Oklahoma became the first state to successfully sue an opioid manufacturer over the public health crisis. As Jackie Fortier of StateImpact Oklahoma reports, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay more than $572 million to fight the crisis.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: After a seven-week trial in the college town of Norman, Okla., state judge Thad Balkman delivered his verdict.

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THAD BALKMAN: Defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.

FORTIER: The judge said that the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson ran a false and dangerous sales campaign that caused addiction and death in the state. Balkman ordered the company to pay $572 million, with additional payments to be negotiated to cover treatment, overdose prevention and other costs of abating the epidemic in the state. Oklahoma had asked for more than $17 billion, but Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who brought the lawsuit over two years ago, appeared vindicated at a news conference after the verdict.

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MIKE HUNTER: What we showed during our seven-week trial, and what Judge Balkman confirmed, is what we know now for certain. Johnson & Johnson was the kingpin behind the nation's ongoing opioid crisis.

FORTIER: In a separate news conference, Sabrina Strong, one of the trial lawyers for Johnson & Johnson said that the opioid crisis was instead the fault of illegal opioids, not drug companies.

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SABRINA STRONG: The crisis, although it includes some diversion of prescription medications, it's largely driven by illegally manufactured drugs that are coming into the country from Mexico and elsewhere.

FORTIER: She said the company would appeal and vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

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STRONG: We have sympathy for all who suffer from substance abuse. But Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis here in Oklahoma or anywhere in this country.

ELIZABETH BURCH: I suspect the grounds for their appeal will be principally focused on the public nuisance law since this wasn't a jury trial.

FORTIER: That's Elizabeth Burch. She's a law professor at the University of Georgia. She says compared to the other settlements that the state has reached with opioid manufacturers - Purdue Pharma for $270 million and Teva for $85 million - the Johnson & Johnson ruling is big, given their market share.

BURCH: It is a relatively large amount for Johnson & Johnson to pay when they have two products that were on the market and being circulated in the state of Oklahoma.

FORTIER: According to estimates detailed in this decision, the company's $572 million payment would only fund Oklahoma's opioid recovery plan for a single year. That's not enough for Gary Mendell. He lost his son to addiction and went on to form the group Shatterproof, which advocates for better prevention and treatment for addiction. He also testified about the state's abatement plan in the trial.

GARY MENDELL: I fully believe, and I testified, that $17 billion is needed. And anything short of that, I'm disappointed.

FORTIER: Because state lawmakers have chosen not to expand Medicaid, Mendell says it will be difficult for the money to reach the most vulnerable Oklahomans. And, he says, the stigma of opioid addiction persists.

MENDELL: The trial certainly got people talking about it and potentially started a process. But change in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors does not happen over a couple months. It takes years.

FORTIER: It could take years for Oklahoma to see the money. Johnson & Johnson says that, if they have to, they'll take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.