Judge Cites Opioid ‘Menace,’ Awards Oklahoma $572M In Landmark Case

Judge Thad Balkman
Judge Thad Balkman arrives to give his decision in the opioid lawsuit in Norman, Okla., Aug. 26, 2019. Balkman found Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state's opioid drug crisis and ordered the company to pay $572 million. (Sue Ogrocki, Pool/AP Photo)


An Oklahoma judge has ruled that drugmaker Johnson & Johnson helped ignite the state’s opioid crisis by deceptively marketing painkillers and must pay $572 million to the state.

Oklahoma sought $17 billion, blaming Johnson & Johnson’s marketing practices for fueling the crisis that has claimed the lives of 6,000 people in the state.

It’s the first ruling to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for one of the worst drug epidemics in American history.

Judge Thad Balkman delivered his decision from the bench after presiding over an eight-week civil trial in the college town of Norman, Okla.

“Defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma,” Balkman said in the ruling.

Johnson & Johnson immediately released a statement saying that the company “plans to appeal the opioid judgment in Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s suit alleged that Johnson & Johnson, through its pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen, helped ignite a public health crisis that has killed thousands of state residents.

Balkman, in the ruling, said the state made its case that Johnson & Johnson contributed to the state’s opioid crisis.

“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Balkman said. “The state met its burden,” proving the company acted improperly with its “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids.”

The case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly the roughly 2,000 cases pending before a federal judge in Ohio.

Initially, Hunter’s lawsuit included Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. In March, Purdue Pharma settled with the state for $270 million, about $200 million of which will fund an addiction research and treatment center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Soon afterward, Hunter dropped all but one of the civil claims, including fraud, against the two remaining defendants.

Just two days before the trial began, one of those two defendants, Teva Pharmaceuticals, based in Israel, announced an $85 million settlement with the state.

Both companies deny any wrongdoing.

Johnson & Johnson marketed the opioid painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta. Lawyers for the company say that its products were highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, among other agencies, and that the state did not provide any evidence showing that the company’s sales practices helped fuel the crisis.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes NPR, StateImpact Oklahoma and other member stations. 

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