Johnson & Johnson ruling becomes pivotal moment in opioid fight

Johnson & Johnson ruling becomes pivotal moment in opioid fight

A judge’s ruling on Monday that Johnson & Johnson caused an opioid epidemic in Oklahoma is a good sign for other cities and states suing drugmakers over their alleged role in the crisis.

The groundbreaking ruling could be a harbinger of things to come in other cases where localities are trying to extract billions of dollars from drug companies to pay for addiction treatment and other services for victims.

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It could also pressure drug companies involved in 2,000 lawsuits to settle out of court, deferring lengthy legal battles in the process.

“Any way you slice it, yesterday’s judgment is a landmark judgement,” said Leslie Kendrick, the vice dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Law.

“A judgment like this in the short-term gives defendants incentive to settle. They’ve now seen you can have a big judgment like this, and this case was before a judge, not a jury. You might see bigger numbers before a jury,” Kendrick said.

Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court ruled Johnson & Johnson “caused an opioid crisis" in Oklahoma, ordering the multibillion-dollar company to pay the state $572 million.

The ruling could signal to other companies that they face an uphill battle in avoiding liability as it relates to the opioid crisis, which killed 400,000 people from 1999 to 2017.

About 2,000 cities, counties and Native American tribes are also suing drug manufacturers and distributors, including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma, claiming they knowingly caused an epidemic by misleading doctors and patients about the risks associated with opioids.

Those cases were consolidated and will be heard by a federal judge and jury in Ohio in October, unless it’s settled out of court.

The plaintiffs in that case will pursue a similar strategy, arguing that drug companies created a public nuisance by misrepresenting the risks associated with the long-term use of opioids.

“The ruling in favor of the State of Oklahoma’s public nuisance claims confirms what communities have been saying for some time: the opioid epidemic significantly interfered with public health,” the co-lead attorneys in the Ohio case said in a statement.

“While public nuisance laws differ in every state, this decision is a critical step forward for the more than 2,000 cities, counties, and towns we represent in the consolidation of federal opioid cases.”

But the ruling in Oklahoma might pressure drug companies facing litigation to quickly settle cases rather than go to trial.

NBC News reported Tuesday that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, is offering to pay between $10 billion and $12 billion to settle those lawsuits.

“While Purdue Pharma is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation, the company has made clear that it sees little good coming from years of wasteful litigation and appeals,” the company said in a statement to The Hill.

“Purdue believes a constructive global resolution is the best path forward, and the company is actively working with the state attorneys general and other plaintiffs to achieve this outcome.”

Purdue also settled in the Oklahoma case, agreeing to pay $270 million to avoid going to trial.

Last week, Endo International Plc and Allergan Plc agreed to pay $15 million to avoid going to trial in the Ohio case.

And more settlements might be on the way.

Teva Pharmaceuticals and drug distributors McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen are among the companies being sued in that case.

The companies have denied wrongdoing.

“It's probably going to have some impact on the settlement negotiations, and if nothing else, it's got obviously got to make the drug manufacturers and drug industry worried about if this is going to be repeated time and time again in subsequent litigation,” said Richard Ausness, a law professor at the University of Kentucky.

Still, the nature of the case in Ohio could make settlements more difficult.

The Oklahoma case focused on one defendant — Johnson & Johnson — and one claim of creating a public nuisance.

But the Ohio case involves thousands of localities targeting dozens of drug companies for various types of fraud, civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment, among other charges.

Other state attorneys general are also targeting drug companies outside of the Ohio case, including West Virginia, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas, New York, California and Wisconsin.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed suit against Johnson & Johnson and Teva on Friday, arguing both companies fueled the epidemic in the state.

Morrisey’s argument centers on similar claims made against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma — that it created a public nuisance.

“We’re going to be very aggressive. We believe the companies dramatically underplayed the addictive tendencies of these products,” he said.

“Johnson & Johnson is a very large player … we want to make sure we have our day in court as well.”