On the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 26, Oklahomans and legal experts from across the nation had their eyes glued to a live video feed from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman.
After listening to testimony for seven weeks and considering it for another six, Judge Thad Balkman was set to announce his ruling on the high-stakes, high-publicity bench trial between the state of Oklahoma and opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately,” Balkman said shortly after 3 p.m. “For this reason, I am entering an abatement plan that consists of costs totaling $572,102,028 to immediately remediate the nuisance.”
This $572 million judgement against Johnson & Johnson—enough to abate the opioid crisis for one year, according to Balkman—was substantially less than the $17 billion the state of Oklahoma requested during closing arguments. Still, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter told CBS News on Tuesday, Aug. 27, he was not disappointed with the outcome.
“Any time you win a case and the verdict is in excess of half a billion dollars, that’s a win in my book,” he said.
After settling with Purdue Pharma for $270 million in March and Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million in May, Hunter said the state of Oklahoma now has nearly one billion dollars to abate the opioid crisis, which has killed approximately 6,000 Oklahomans since 2000.
While it may take years before the state receives any settlement money from Johnson & Johnson, the funds will eventually go toward providing assessments and treatment services for all Oklahomans in need.
Good news for Oklahoma, right? It becomes even better once you look beyond the Sooner State.
More than 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers have consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio. Like Oklahoma, several of these lawsuits claim public nuisance against the drugmakers, a legal claim in which a plaintiff must establish a collective public right has been violated and the defendant had control over the offending activity or condition. This legal strategy worked against tobacco makers in the 1960s, but was unsuccessful against firearm and lead paint manufacturers in the 1990s.
Three months after becoming the first state to reach the trial stage against an opioid manufacturer, Oklahoma became the first state to win a public nuisance claim against an opioid drugmaker. Now these thousands of cases in Ohio have at least some legal precedent on their side.
If the Oklahoma trial is any indication, these large pharmaceutical companies are about to face a financial burden unlike anything they have ever seen before, and that is fantastic news.
Johnson & Johnson knew the addictive power of opioids long before consumers did, and their plan to market opioids as safe and non-addictive was calculated. Large settlements from Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals indicate the evidence was not on their side, and they were engaged in similar business practices.
Johnson & Johnson used paid doctors and front groups to advocate for more opioid prescriptions among the medical community. They made repeated sales calls to Oklahoma doctors, at some points offering gifts and special status if they prescribed enough of the drugs. They published false promotional material, even after the FDA issued a warning against their “false and misleading” claims in 2004.
Personal witnesses who testified at the trial, including family members of an OU football player who died of an opioid overdose and an opioid addict turned youth pastor who reached rock bottom after obtaining an opioid painkiller prescription, showed how a bone sprain or back surgery could lead to a deadly addiction.
In 2019, the average person knows opioids have the potential to be harmful and addictive. But this trial showed how the sheer greed of these large pharmaceutical companies contributed directly to thousands of deaths.
Johnson & Johnson should own up to their wrongdoing and write the State of Oklahoma a $572 million check, no legal appeals or questions asked. They, along with other major pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, should work diligently with the 2,000 plaintiffs in Ohio to reach settlements that will help curb the opioid crisis.
One would hope these companies would learn from the opioid crisis and not push any new drug into the market without extensive research and testing. But in a capitalist market where profits and rising stocks are king, the FDA will ultimately have to be more diligent in cracking down on misleading advertisements and enforcing stringent drug research.
As an Oklahoman, I am proud of Attorney General Hunter for taking on these companies head on and securing funding to reverse the crisis in Oklahoma. I hope and pray other states find similar success in court, and those impacted directly by the opioid crisis can access relief.