Norman, Oklahoma – Today, Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of the State of Oklahoma in the nation’s first opioid trial, requiring defendant Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen to pay $572,102,028 into a fund that will be used to remedy the devastating public nuisance in Oklahoma. Nix Patterson, LLP represented Oklahoma throughout the litigation and at trial along with co-counsel Whitten Burrage. Judge Balkman presided over the seven-week trial at the Cleveland County courthouse in Norman, Oklahoma, from May 28 to July 15, 2019.
Delivering his ruling today from the courthouse in Norman, Judge Balkman found J&J’s false and deceptive marketing of opioids caused the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, which he found constituted a “public nuisance” under Oklahoma law. Brad Beckworth, a partner at Nix Patterson and one of the lead trial lawyers for the State, said of the judgment: “We could not be more satisfied with this result for the State of Oklahoma and its citizens. We have seen firsthand how J&J’s false marketing of opioids as non-addictive and safe for everyday pain ravaged lives and destroyed families in Oklahoma. Judge Balkman’s decision requiring J&J to fund the State’s abatement plan means Oklahomans can get the treatment they need and new cases of opioid addiction can be prevented.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and his team filed this case in June of 2017. “Taking this case all the way to trial and doing it swiftly was important to General Hunter and the legal team,” Mr. Beckworth said. “Oklahomans deserved justice, and in this case justice included showing the world in broad daylight exactly how J&J created this crisis in Oklahoma and profited hugely from doing so. Very few people were even aware of J&J’s dominant role in the opioid epidemic. We felt a sense of duty to expose J&J as one of the biggest participants in the industry, and one of the companies that profited the most from the opioid crisis.”
The evidence showed that J&J not only manufactured its own opioids, but also was the number-one supplier of base opioid ingredients used in nearly every opioid drug on the market. J&J’s subsidiaries, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, grew the opium poppies and synthesized the ingredients that supplied the active pharmaceutical and raw ingredients for more than 60% of the most prescribed opioids in Oklahoma. These J&J subsidiaries sold the base opioid ingredients to other drug manufacturers, like Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Endo, and many others. J&J also invented a mutant poppy that enabled the growth of oxycodone to meet the anticipated increased demand for Purdue Pharma’s deadly blockbuster drug, OxyContin.
Mr. Beckworth explained, “Without J&J, the volume of opioids that flooded Oklahoma and the country would not have been possible. OxyContin would not have been possible. J&J was the kingpin of the whole industry.” The evidence at trial showed that J&J had a strong financial interest in the success of the opioid industry as a whole, and engaged in persistent unbranded marketing and behind-the-scenes lobbying to promote the liberal use of opioids. The profits from Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids’s sales of opioid ingredients to other manufacturers went straight to J&J’s bottom line. Meanwhile, J&J’s subsidiary, Janssen, manufactured and promoted its own branded synthetic opioids, Duragesic, Nucynta, and Ultram, claiming they too were safe and effective for everyday pain and non-addictive. However, Janssen’s drugs were just as dangerous and addictive as other opioids. In fact, Duragesic contains fentanyl, a now-infamous opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine. Because of this, Janssen’s medical advisory board specifically advised Janssen not to market Duragesic as safe and non-addictive, but Janssen rejected this advice.
Rather than accept responsibility for its part in the opioid crisis, at trial J&J tried to blame the State of Oklahoma, its medical schools, its physicians, and even patients who became addicted to opioids after a minor injury. Mr. Beckworth said: “It’s astonishing that J&J would lie to everyone about the safety and efficacy of opioids for decades and then try to blame people for believing their lies. J&J’s wackadoodle claim that everyone is at fault for this crisis except J&J was one of the most recalcitrant things I’ve ever seen in a courtroom. Fortunately, Judge Balkman saw through J&J’s blame game.”
Mr. Beckworth also expressed gratitude for General Hunter and the litigation team he put together. “We commend General Hunter for his courageous leadership throughout this litigation. We are also grateful for our co-counsel, Mike Burrage, Reggie Whitten, and all the great lawyers at Whitten Burrage. We were incredibly lucky to have the team we had.”
The funds for the State’s abatement plan, which was developed by Oklahoma State Commissioner of Mental Health Terri White, will provide essential, life-saving services to help reverse the devastating opioid crisis in Oklahoma. Since 2000, more than 6,000 Oklahomans have lost their lives due to unintentional prescription-opioid overdose. Between 1994 and 2006, unintentional opioid overdose rates increased seven-fold in Oklahoma. Since 2011, more people have died from unintentional opioid overdose in Oklahoma than from motor vehicle accidents. There were approximately 10,999 non-fatal hospitalizations from 2000 to 2015 because of prescription opioid overdose. And nearly 500 babies born to SoonerCare members had a diagnosis of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) in 2017 alone. The State’s abatement plan— presented at trial—is aimed at reducing these appalling statistics.
The State requested an abatement plan that includes six major categories: (1) addiction prevention; treatment and recovery services; (2) overdose prevention and response; (3) medical education; (4) NAS assessment and treatment; (5) data surveillance, reporting and research; and (6) law enforcement and regulatory services and programs to address the opioid crisis.
Oklahoma’s unique public nuisance law allowed General Hunter to pursue claims against J&J for creating the opioid crisis, and to require J&J to fund a plan to fix—or abate—the crisis. While public nuisance laws vary from state to state, Oklahoma’s law historically has been used to abate widespread harms affecting the public health and safety of individuals and society as a whole since it was passed more than 100 years ago.
J&J may choose to appeal Judge Balkman’s ruling, a process that could last several years. In that event, J&J would first appeal the judgment to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which could either review the case or send it to an intermediate appellate court in Oklahoma. If the Oklahoma appellate courts affirm the judgment, J&J would then have the option of asking the United States Supreme Court to review the case.
Prior to trial, Nix Patterson negotiated historic settlements with defendants Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals on behalf of the State. Under the terms of the Purdue settlement, Purdue paid a total of $270 million, the majority of which will be used to fund a world- class, national opioid-addiction treatment and education center at Oklahoma State University medical school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Teva, a manufacturer of generic opioids, paid $85 million to settle the State’s claims.
Mr. Beckworth served as Nix Patterson’s lead attorney on the case. Other Nix Patterson attorneys involved in the litigation include partners, Lisa Baldwin, Jeff Angelovich, and Mike Angelovich, and associates Trey Duck, Drew Pate, Winn Cutler, Ross Leonoudakis, Cody Hill, James Warner, Brooke Churchman, and Nathan Hall. Over the course of the litigation, Nix Patterson attorneys and their co-counsel took 122 depositions, defended 83 depositions, briefed over 100 motions, argued 35 hearings, combed through 85 million pages of documents produced by defendants, and produced over 5 million pages of documents from 13 Oklahoma state agencies.
Born in Texas over 40 years ago, Nix Patterson has long been at the forefront of the small group of firms with nationwide contingency practices providing litigation strategies and solutions for individuals, companies, investors, whistleblowers, and sovereigns. Nix Patterson has extensive experience in handling large-scale, complex cases that require creative and bold action. Although best known as one of the firms who obtained a $17.2 billion settlement for the State of Texas in the historic tobacco litigation, they have also recovered billions more in verdicts and settlements in diverse and complex cases across a wide range of practice areas.
All 33 days of the trial were televised and streamed live via YouTube. Below is a link to closing arguments made on July 15, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w3Uoahj8bo.
Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $572M in Landmark Opioid Case.
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