Johnson & Johnson has been a formidable American healthcare company for decades, manufacturing everything from baby wipes to pharmaceuticals. Now the drug maker has been ordered to pay $572 million for contributing to the opioid epidemic. The order came from a judge in Oklahoma, one of the many states reeling from the spread of prescription painkillers across the country. This is just one of many lawsuits brought against Johnson & Johnson in recent months and the result could have lasting legal implications for additional plaintiffs.
Find out how this lawsuit could impact the drug industry moving forward.
A Victory for Oklahoma
As of now, 48 states and over 2,000 local and tribal governments have sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging the drug maker is at least partially responsible for spreading addictive opioids across the country, which has resulted in the death of over 400,000 people in the U.S. since 2000. As these lawsuits play out in court, Johnson & Johnson and the company’s executives have come under fire for their aggressive selling tactics and misleading marketing campaigns, despite being aware of the addictive nature of these opioids.
Oklahoma state prosecutors painted Johnson & Johnson as a public nuisance, arguing that executives were motivated by greed and that the company’s sales tactics put the citizens of Oklahoma at risk as a result. In the company’s defense, lawyers for Johnson & Johnson have argued that these opioids had been approved by the FDA, which means the federal government bears responsibility for the opioid crisis, not the drug manufacturer.
Oklahoma originally sued Johnson & Johnson for $17.5 billion, setting forth a plan and a budget for abating the opioid crisis in the state over the next 30 years. Johnson & Johnson argued the number was wildly inflated. On Monday, the judge awarded the state $572 million, just one year of funding for its plan. The money is expected to go to opioid use prevention and addiction treatment in the state.
Soon after the verdict was announced, Johnson & Johnson said it would appeal the decision.
What the Lawsuit Means for Johnson & Johnson Going Forward
While Oklahoma was only awarded a fraction of what it originally asked for, the result of the lawsuit could be used as a roadmap for future legal outcomes. The Oklahoma case was the first opioid-related lawsuit to go to trial. With more suits on the docket, state and local prosecutors could use a similar argument in court when making their cases before a judge. The judges in these cases will also be able to look to the precedent set by the Cleveland County District Court, which means Johnson & Johnson could be held liable in future cases as well.
As for Johnson & Johnson, the result of the lawsuit shows that the company’s legal arguments don’t seem to be as effective as the company had hoped. While the company got off relatively easy considering the 17.5 billion Oklahoma prosecutors had originally asked for, the judge has sent a clear message to Johnson & Johnson, executives deserve at least some of the blame for their role in the opioid crisis.
Oklahoma has a relatively low population compared to other states suing Johnson & Johnson. States hit hardest by the opioid crisis include Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. If lawsuits in these states and others go to trial, Johnson & Johnson and other drug manufacturers could face higher fines in each of these states.
The Oklahoma lawsuit has also damaged Johnson & Johnson’s reputation among the public and lawmakers. Once considered the backbone of the American consumer economy, the company is now considered a liability, and boycotts could follow suit in the months and years to come as more lawsuits go to trial.
The verdict is still far from a done deal as Johnson & Johnson begins the appeal process. If the verdict withstands appeal, those struggling with opioid use and addiction in the state of Oklahoma should get some much-needed assistance. We’ll have to wait and see as more opioid lawsuits head to trial in the near future.