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Applause greets $572 million penalty on opioids

NORMAN, Okla. (BP) — An Oklahoma judge’s $572 million verdict Monday (Aug. 26) against the pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson for its role in the state’s opioid crisis gained endorsements from federal and state government leaders.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman, from his courtroom in Norman, Okla., issued the ground-breaking ruling in what is reportedly the first major lawsuit against an opioid manufacturer to go to trial. Hundreds of such suits are awaiting trial, and more than 1,700 suits have been combined in a federal court in Ohio, according to The Daily Oklahoman.

Prescription opioids, referred to also as painkillers, were connected to more than 6,100 deaths in Oklahoma from 2000 to 2017, the Oklahoma City newspaper reported. Among common prescription opioids are hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl.

In his opinion, Balkman found the marketing campaigns of Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries were “false, misleading, and dangerous” and “caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths,” and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a Southern Baptist, said it was “a day of justice” for opioid victims and their families. Lankford — a member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City — commended state Attorney General Mike Hunter and his legal team.

“While money will not help restore the loss of life and life-long consequences of the crisis of addiction and dependency, this money will help prevent a crisis like this in the future and help Oklahomans struggling with addiction,” Lankford said.

Hunter called Balkman’s opinion a “major victory for the state of Oklahoma, the nation and everyone who has lost a loved one because of an opioid overdose. Judge Balkman has affirmed our position that Johnson & Johnson maliciously and diabolically created the opioid epidemic in our state. Our evidence convincingly showed that this company did not just lie and mislead, they colluded with other companies en route to the deadliest manmade epidemic our nation has ever seen.”

Messengers to the 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution on opioid abuse and addiction.

The resolution called on pastors and churches to be informed of the dangers of opioids, urged governments at all levels to cooperate to address the crisis, and encouraged “the medical community, insurance providers, healthcare providers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to advocate for the prescription of opioids under only the most stringent standards.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the case “illustrates the severity of the crisis of opioid addiction raging in communities across the country.”

“Families are being ripped apart due to substance addiction, and we as a nation ought to do all we can to stop this nightmare,” Moore told Baptist Press. “As we do, my prayer is that our churches will also hold out the Gospel of grace to those imperiled families and communities and would lead many to recovery and newness of life in Christ.”

Johnson & Johnson said it would appeal what it described as a flawed opinion.

Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, “did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” said Michael Ullmann, executive vice president and general counsel of Johnson & Johnson. “The unprecedented award for [Oklahoma’s] ‘abatement plan’ has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the Company’s medicines or conduct.”

In his decision, Balkman ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572.1 million to Oklahoma to carry out in its first year an abatement plan to save lives and prevent addictions. The state had requested more than $17 billion, according to The Oklahoman.

Some state witnesses said the plan would need at least 20 years to succeed, but Oklahoma did not present adequate evidence to show the time and costs needed after the first year to abate the crisis, Balkman said. He will issue more orders regarding the abatement plan as needed, he said.

Balkman ruled Johnson & Johnson violated Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, which prohibits the performance of an act or omission of a duty that either “annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others.”

In his findings, Balkman said Johnson & Johnson:

— Promoted “the concept that chronic pain was undertreated (creating a problem) and increased opioid prescribing was the solution.”

— “[U]sed the phrase, ‘pseudoaddiction,” to convince doctors that patients who exhibited signs of addiction — e.g., asking for ‘higher and higher doses’ of opioids or returning to the doctor ‘early’ before a prescription should have run out — were not actually suffering from addiction, but from the undertreatment of pain; and the solution, according to Defendants’ marketing, was to prescribe the patient more opioids.

— “[T]rained their sales reps to target high-opioid-prescribing physicians, including pain specialists and primary care physicians.”

— “[M]ade substantial payments of money to a variety of different pain advocacy groups and organizations that influenced prescribing physicians and other health care professionals.”

In addition, Balkman said, Johnson & Johnson’s “sales representatives called on Oklahoma medical professionals hundreds of thousands of times while selling opioids” during the last two decades.

Two other groups of pharmaceutical firms originally included in Oklahoma’s lawsuit settled out of court. Purdue Pharma agreed to a $270 million settlement with the state, while Teva Pharmaceuticals, which is based in Israel, settled for $85 million.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated with new information after it was originally posted on Aug. 27.