Drug companies have been dealt a major blow in the opioid crisis – an epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. A judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay half a billion dollars for aggressively marketing addictive painkillers.
The money awarded was only a small fraction of the settlement the state of Oklahoma was seeking, but its impact on other pending lawsuits could be enormous.
In the landmark ruling, Judge Thad Balkman ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $575 million for "false, misleading marketing campaigns" for opioid painkillers that led to addiction and death.
It's the first verdict to hold a drug-maker responsible for the devastation caused by opioid addiction.
Judge Balkman said, "The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans."
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said, "Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addiction caused by their activities."
It was an important victory for the families of opioid victims.
Craig and Gail Box testified at trial how their son Austin, as a linebacker at the University of Oklahoma, started taking painkillers after a back injury. He became addicted and died of an overdose in 2011. "Nothing is going to bring my son back, but this victory allows his death to stand for something," Gail Box said.
The state of Oklahoma's lawsuit had demanded more than $17 billion. Attorney General Hunter said, "The company used pseudoscience and misleading information to downplay the risks of opioids, leading to the worst manmade public nuisance our state and this country has ever seen, the opioid crisis."
Johnson & Johnson denied the claims against it and has vowed to appeal. Its legal counsel Sabrina Strong said, "We have sympathy for all who suffer from substance abuse. But Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis here in Oklahoma or anywhere in this country."
So far, 48 states and more than 1,500 local and tribal governments have suits pending against drug makers over the cost of the opioid crisis.
The CDC says opioids and prescription drugs killed 50,000 Americans in 2017, making it the leading cause of injury-related deaths.
Also on Monday, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that previously secret testimony from former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler and other documents about Purdue Pharma's marketing of its potent opioid painkiller Oxycontin will finally be made public.