An Oklahoma judge has ruled that the corporate giant Johnson & Johnson must pay more than $572 million for the role they played in the state's opioid epidemic, which officials say has killed over 6,000 Oklahomans over nearly 20 years.
The state's Attorney General, Mike Hunter, said that Johnson & Johnson, as well as their pharmaceutical subsidiary (Janssen) pushed painkiller opioids to doctors while simultaenously downplaying their addictiveness, dating all the way back to the 1990s. According to the state, this attempt to increase sales qualifies as a "public nuisance" that has killed thousands of their residents over the past two decades.
Johnson & Johnson disputed that characterization from opposing attorneys, while their own attorney (John Sparks) said that the application of the public nuisance law had been misinterpreted, and said it was previously limited to legal disputes over property or public spaces. The exact total the company is required to pay is $572,102,028.
The ruling may also establish a precedent for more than 2,000 pending opioid cases against a number of pharmaceutical companies who may instead opt to settle.
This past March Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, reached a $270 million settlement with the Oklahoma attorney general's office. Another company, Teva Pharmaceutical, settled with the state for $85 million just days before going to trial. Despite shelling out those large figures, both companies maintain they did nothing wrong.
Hunter had been pushing for Johnson & Johnson to pony up $17 billion to the state, which would then be allocated for addiction treatment and overall prevention over the course of the next three decades. As the trial waged on, Hunter said Johnson & Johnson, as well as other similar companies, tried to rush out a "magic pill" to bank quick profits while ignoring the scientifically established danger of opiods.
“We’ve shown that J&J was at the root cause of this opioid crisis,” said Oklahoma lead attorney Brad Beckworth, according to The New York Times. “It made billions of dollars from it over a 20-year period. They’ve always denied responsibility and yet at the same time they say they want to make a difference in solving this problem. So do the right thing: come in here, pay the judgment.”
In December 2018 a St. Louis, Missouri jury found that Johnson & Johnson should pay $4.7 billion because their baby powder caused cancer in some consumers, though no verdict of that size has ever survived appeal. In 2018 Johnson and Johnson had sales worth $81.6 billion.