Oklahoma and Johnson & Johnson spar as historic opioid trial comes to a close

Posted at 1:14 PM, Jul 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-15 17:07:17-04

The state of Oklahoma and Johnson & Johnson sparred over who should take responsibility for the state’s opioid crisis in explosive closing arguments on Monday that marked the end of a historic trial.

The lawsuit at the heart of the trial accuses Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries of creating a “public nuisance” and costing Oklahoma billions of dollars.

Johnson & Johnson argues that its medications are not the cause of the complex opioid crisis and that it has been made a “scapegoat.”

Before adjourning the trial, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said he anticipates taking about a month to reach a decision in the case.

The case could lay a road map for other states and municipalities seeking to hold drugmakers responsible for opioid crises in their communities.

The state of Oklahoma has presented a $17.5 billion abatement plan over 30 years to address the opioid epidemic.

In a Norman, Oklahoma, courtroom on Monday, lawyers for the state urged Balkman to hold Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, accountable for an “oversupply” of opioids in the state, leading to an epidemic of addiction and deaths.

“Johnson & Johnson knew opioid drugs are addictive and cause harm,” said Brad Beckworth, a lawyer representing the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, during closing arguments.

“If you oversupply, people will die. That’s a simple answer to a complex problem.”

In a press conference after the trial, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said the trial was the “responsible” course of action to deal with an epidemic that had cost lives and left many addicted to opioids.

“This was the only remedy that we thought was going to be sufficient to deal with the problem and to, on behalf of Oklahoma, get this behind us,” Hunter said.

Lawyers for Johnson & Johnson have argued that every step of its drug manufacturing and supply process is strictly regulated and drugs from the company make up a small portion of the opioids prescribed across Oklahoma.

“In this litigation, the evidence showed that our company responsibly marketed and promoted our prescription opioid medicines, appropriately following the law and regulatory process. We did what a responsible company should do,” a statement from Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. said after the closing arguments.

Larry Ottaway, an attorney representing Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, urged Balkman during the closing arguments to weigh both sides of the issue.

“We’ve always been patient focused,” he said, adding that without opioids the 1 in 5 adults in the United States who have chronic pain would suffer.

Just last week, Balkman denied Johnson & Johnson’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In the motion, lawyers called the state’s effort a “slew of illogical, legally defective theories far outside the bounds of Oklahoma precedent.”

Oklahoma has already reached settlements with two other opioid drugmakers: a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world’s largest makers of generic drugs.

Nationwide, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids.