Oklahoma Opioid Lawsuit Verdict Sets New Standard for Drug Maker Culpability

Landmark opioid lawsuit results in $572 million verdict for Oklahoma.

Yesterday, in what has become the most notable opioid lawsuit in history, an Oklahoma judge ordered drug manufacturer, and Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals to pay $572 million for what he ruled was their role in the proliferation of statewide addiction.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman became the first judge to rule in a trial against the makers of pharmaceuticals blamed for contributing to the nation’s opioid crisis. All previous opioid lawsuits that have endeavored to hold drug makers accountable have resulted in pre-trial settlement, including two previous cases brought by Oklahoma: an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals and a $270 million settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

Although the final figure fell far short of the original $17.2 billion sought by Oklahoma, it’s more than double the next largest settlement in a similar case brought by the state, and a definitive condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry for their role in escalating painkiller prescription deaths. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that there were 388 opioid-related deaths in Oklahoma in 2017, accounting for a significant portion of the approximately 47,600 nationwide.

Delivering A Clear Message

During the trial, which began on May 28th and lasted almost exactly three months, the State of Oklahoma asserted that Johnson & Johnson and their subsidiaries created a public nuisance by deliberately overstating the effectiveness of prescription opioids in the treatment and management of chronic pain, while simultaneously understating the risk of addiction and subsequent overdose. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter went as far as calling Johnson & Johnson a “kingpin company motivated by greed.”

Hunter specifically pointed to Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, which produced much of the raw opium used by other manufacturers to produce the drugs. In his ruling for the plaintiff, Judge Balkman reiterated that the opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately.

The Human Cost of Opioid Addiction in Oklahoma

The landmark opioid lawsuit highlighted the heartbreaking human toll that opioid addiction has taken on Oklahomans, including residents who have fallen victim to dependency and those who have lost loved ones to the crisis. Among the many pleased with the verdict were Oklahoma residents Greg and Gail Box, whose 22-year-old son Austin was a promising linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011, and prosecuting attorney Reggie Whitten, who lost his son to opioid addiction. “I feel like my boy is looking down,” Whitten said after the ruling.

Lasting Impact of the OK Opioid Lawsuit

Johnson & Johnson is currently in the process of preparing their appeal, reiterating their position that the decision was flawed and that opioid abuse is a larger, multilateral issue. Many on the plaintiff’s side are hopeful and optimistic that the opioid lawsuit will set a new standard of accountability for drug makers in the ongoing fight against abuse and addiction, while empowering states to act. The ruling could have especially significant implications for the over 1,500 similar cases that have been brought by state, local and tribal governments and consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio. “We did it in Oklahoma. You can do it elsewhere,” says Hunter.

One Part of A Difficult Puzzle

While holding pharma companies accountable is a critical part of curbing opioid addiction in the United States, the epidemic must also be met with effective and proactive treatment and prevention efforts. As the standards of culpability for drug makers continue to evolve, Recovery Unplugged will continue to offer comprehensive, effective and musically assisted treatment for opioid use disorder an all other types of chemical dependency.