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Decision expected in landmark opioid trial against Johnson & Johnson

Team SoOLEGAL 27 Aug 2019 12:00am

Decision expected in landmark opioid trial against Johnson & Johnson

A ruling in a landmark legal case over the opioid crisis could lead to one of the biggest monetary awards in U.S. history.

A judge in Oklahoma will decide today if Johnson & Johnson bears responsibility for helping to fuel the state's opioid epidemic by aggressively marketing painkillers. Oklahoma is asking for $17.2 billion.

This is the first such case against a drugmaker to go to trial, and it could set a precedent for cases across the country. Depending on how the judge rules, it could give lawyers a new strategy for holding large corporations accountable.

For weeks, the state of Oklahoma has argued that Johnson & Johnson and its pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen helped create a "public nuisance" by intensely marketing opioid painkillers while downplaying the risk of addiction. 

"This is very personal to all of us," said state attorney Reggie Whitten. "My partner lost a niece to this opioid epidemic. I lost my firstborn son to the opioid epidemic."

The 2017 filing named multiple defendants. Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA settled out of court for a combined total of $355 million, without admitting wrongdoing. 

But Johnson & Johnson and Janssen decided to go to trial. 

"When you're right, you fight," said their attorney, Sabrina Strong, a partner at O'Melveny and Myers. "And that's what you're seeing here. We have sympathy for those who suffer from substance abuse. But Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in this country."

Johnson & Johnson says its opioid products account for less than one percent of the Oklahoma market. But the state disputes that.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter told CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca, "They made money whether they sold their drugs or when somebody else sold opioids, because they were supplying everybody else. And this 'one percent' thing, that's a complete canard."

If the judge rules against Johnson & Johnson, the "public nuisance" argument that was previously used successfully to fight Big Tobacco could possibly be used in opioid lawsuits set to go to trial in Ohio this fall.

"Thousands of people being addicted to prescription opioids, thousands of people  dying, you've a public nuisance, you've got harm that's occurring," said Hunter. 

Both sides in Oklahoma say they'll appeal if the judge rules against them.

In addition to the cases in Ohio, suits were filed last week in West Virginia accusing Johnson & Johnson, as well as Teva, of misrepresenting the risks of their opioid products.

Tagged: international news  
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