OKLAHOMA: A court in Oklahoma has ordered pharma company Johnson & Johnson to pay $572m (£469m) for its part in fuelling Oklahoma’s opioid addiction crisis.
Immediately after the verdict was handed down, the company said it would appeal.
The case was the first to go to trial out of thousands of lawsuits filed against opioid makers and distributors.
Earlier this year, Oklahoma settled with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for $270m and Teva Pharmaceutical for $85m, leaving J&J as the lone defendant.
Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court in Norman, Oklahoma, ruled prosecutors had demonstrated that J&J contributed to a “public nuisance” in its deceptive promotion of highly addictive prescription painkillers.
“Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” the ruling declared.
The payment would be used for the care and treatment of opioid addicts, he said.
The outcome of the case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in about 2,000 opioid lawsuits due to go to trial in Ohio in October unless the parties can reach a settlement.
Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, some 6,000 people in Oklahoma have died from opioid overdoses, according to the state’s lawyers.
During Oklahoma’s seven-week non-jury trial, lawyers for the state argued that J&J carried out a years-long marketing campaign that minimised the addictive painkillers’ risks and promoted their benefits.
The state’s lawyers had called J&J an opioid “kingpin” and argued that its marketing efforts created a public nuisance as doctors over-prescribed the drugs, leading to a surge in overdose deaths in Oklahoma.
J&J vigorously denied wrongdoing, arguing that its marketing claims had scientific support and that its painkillers, Duragesic and Nucynta, made up a tiny fraction of opioids prescribed in Oklahoma.
The company’s share price rose following the ruling as investors had been expecting a much bigger fine.
America is the biggest consumer of opioids, followed by Canada and Germany.
The state’s case rested on a “radical” interpretation of the state’s public nuisance law, J&J said.
The company said in a statement that since 2008, its painkillers had accounted for less than 1% of the US market, including generics.
“The decision in this case is flawed. The State failed to present evidence that the company’s products or actions caused a public nuisance in Oklahoma.
“This judgment is a misapplication of public nuisance law that has already been rejected by judges in other states,” it added.