In a landmark ruling, Oklahoma judge Thad Balkman ruled against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson today in the first trial meant to extract retribution from drugmakers for fueling the unprecedented wave of opiate-related overdoses and deaths in the U.S.
The case, opened by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, originally targeted Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals in addition to Johnson & Johnson. The former two firms reportedly settled without admitting blame for $270 million and $85 million, respectively.
Expected fines for Johnson & Johnson ranged anywhere from $500 million to $5 billion. Upon news that Judge Balkman had hewed towards the lower end of that spectrum, stocks rose for many pharma companies, Johnson & Johnson included. In his $572 million decision today, Balkman said Johnson & Johnson had engaged in “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids” which “compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans.”
Although the decision is almost certain to be appealed, Judge Balkman’s decision makes it that much more likely other states will pursue similar tactics against pharma companies, many of which had a direct hand in aggressively pushing opiate-based painkillers to patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 47,000 died of opiate overdoses in 2017 alone. When the 18 preceding years are included, that number jumps to over 400,000.