Judge: Johnson & Johnson “engaged in false and misleading marketing” in opioid crisis

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NORMAN, Okla. - Weeks after testimony ended in a historic bench trial, an Oklahoma judge has reached an opinion in the case.

On Monday, Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of the state, saying that Johnson & Johnson's actions compromised the health of thousands of Oklahomans.

According to the ruling, Balkman found that the "Defendants engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally; and (b) this conduct constitutes a public nuisance under extant Oklahoma law." His order also states that Johnson &Johnson's practices were not protected by the First Amendment.

"The First Amendment does not protect Defendants' messages which were misleading in that they were told by their own experts that marketing opioids on their abuse potential was dangerous and that Purdue had already shown that such a message was prone to mislead. They were told that the data they cited did not support their claims before they made them, and then again by the FDA after they had already started spreading that misleading message," the ruling states. "They knew the studies they were citing were incomplete, unsound, or fraught with misrepresentations. The Defendants' sales reps delivered those messages, and as the call notes and the sales trends demonstrate, Oklahoma physicians were influenced by the misleading messages Defendants were delivering."

The judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the State of Oklahoma $572 million as part of an abatement plan.

The abatement plan is as follows:

  • Addiction Treatment Services- $232,947,710
  • Addiction Treatment- Supplementary Services- $31,796,011
  • Public medication and disposal program- $139,883
  • Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment- $56,857,054
  • Pain prevention and non-opioid pain management therapies- $103,277,835
  • Naloxone distribution and overdose prevention education - $1,585,797
  • Medical Case Management/Consulting - $3,953,832
  • NAS treatment evaluating standards - $107,683,000
  • Developing NAS - $181,983
  • Universal screenign for pregnant women - $1,969,000
  • Treatment for infants born with NAS or opioid withdrawal - $20,608,847
  • Policy & Legislative Development and Tracking - $11,101,076.

“Today is a major victory for the state of Oklahoma, the nation and everyone who has lost a loved one because of an opioid overdose,” Attorney General Hunter said. “Judge Balkman has affirmed our position that Johnson & Johnson maliciously and diabolically created the opioid epidemic in our state. Our evidence convincingly showed that this company did not just lie and mislead, they colluded with other companies en route to the deadliest manmade epidemic our nation has ever seen. When deaths and sales of the drugs began to skyrocket in tandem, the company repeatedly ignored the problem and built its billion-dollar brand out of greed and on the backs of the pain and suffering of Oklahomans. It is my hope that this judgment will provide some solace to the thousands of families, who have tragically lost a loved one due to an opioid overdose. It should also inspire a sense of optimism in those still struggling with an opioid addiction because we remain committed to abating the crisis, thus bringing about a brighter future for those suffering and our state."

Click here to read the full judge's order.

For weeks, the state of Oklahoma argued that Johnson & Johnson fueled the opioid crisis in the state by oversupplying painkillers through deceptive marketing and downplaying the risks of addiction.

"This company cut and ran. They took the money, and they ran and they’ve left us here holding the body bags," attorney Brad Beckworth said during closing arguments. "This is the worst crisis, the worst public health problem Oklahoma has ever seen. It’s a man-made crisis, but it is a drug company crisis and it begins and it should end with them. They make the mutant poppy that started this thing. They work hand in hand with Purdue to make it happen."

Beckworth, who represented the state in the weeks-long trial, said the defense's case "defied logic" and "was nothing more than a sham."

"Don’t buy that this was a good company. In the context of this case, it is not a good company. The folks that wanted to build this billion-dollar pain franchise, that was not a good company," he told Judge Thad Balkman. "This was a company that not only ignored history, they ignored their own scientific advisors. They turned this state upside down."

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Johnson & Johnson argued that they marketed and promoted medicine responsibly and followed both federal law and regulations.

"Don’t tell me that doctors weren’t aware — that Oklahoma doctors weren’t aware of the risks. The marketing aids used by these people all contain the FDA labels or the information from them," defense attorney Larry Ottaway said. "Oklahoma and America, unfortunately, have a drug problem. I wish we could snap our finger or pump our tie and cure it. We cannot."

Ottaway went on to suggest the state's abatement plan seeking $17 billion was not well thought out. During the trial, expert witnesses called by the state said they believe it could take 30 years to fully "clean up" the problem.

"Are these costs going to continue? Are these services not magically going to disappear on January 1, 2049?" Ottaway questioned. "The plan has not been developed yet. The evaluation of this abatement — we don’t even know how we’re going to do it. It seeks billions of dollars for services already provided. That’s not damages. That's a penalty."

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the decision.

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