Risk & Compliance

J&J Found Liable for Helping Cause Opioid Crisis

In a landmark ruling, an Oklahoma judge said the firm's opioid sales practices were false and misleading, endangering the safety of Oklahomans.
Matthew HellerAugust 27, 2019

An Oklahoma judge has for the first time found a drug maker to blame for the U.S. opioid epidemic, ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for falsely marketing two painkillers as safe.

After an eight-week trial of a landmark case brought by Oklahoma’s attorney general, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said J&J’s opioid sales practices constituted a public nuisance under Oklahoma law because they “annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans.”

“Defendants’ false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns have caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” he wrote in a 42-page ruling.

The $572 million judgment against J&J covers one year of costs under the state’s plan to address the opioid crisis. The state was seeking more than $17 billion from the company but hailed Judge Balkman’s ruling despite the discrepancy.

“We’ve shown that J&J was at the root cause of this opioid crisis,” said Brad Beckworth, the lead attorney for the state.

Two other drug makers — Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and Teva Pharmaceuticals — had previously reached settlements of $270 million and $85 million, respectively, with Oklahoma. “The closely watched case could be a dire warning for some two dozen opioid makers, distributors and retailers that face more than 2,000 similar lawsuits around the country,” The New York Times said.

Oklahoma accused J&J of falsely marketing Duragesic, a fentanyl patch, and Nucynta, another opioid painkiller, by representing that they were safe and effective for the treatment of chronic, non-malignant pain.

The company argued there was no evidence showing its sales practices helped fuel the crisis but Judge Balkman found its conduct was “more than enough” to make it liable, noting, among other things, that it told sales reps that there was a 2.6% or lower risk of addiction when using opioids prescribed by a doctor.

J&J said it would appeal the decision. “The unprecedented award … has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the company’s medicines or conduct,” General Counsel Michael Ullmann said.