Nursing & Healthcare News

Opioid Suit Decided Against Johnson & Johnson

Company ordered to pay $572 million in Oklahoma civil trial

Nurses may associate Johnson & Johnson with its uplifting “Discover Nursing” campaign. However, an Oklahoma judge recently ruled that the company’s “false, misleading and deceptive” marketing strategies helped to create the opioid epidemic, ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay a $572 million civil penalty.

Public Nuisance Suit

In June 2017, the Oklahoma attorney general’s office filed a civil lawsuit against several pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson, charging that their role in the state’s opioid crisis constitutes a public nuisance and demanding that the companies pay to rectify it.

It’s a legal strategy many states and localities have recently adopted in their attempt to hold the pharmaceutical industry responsible for the opioid oversupply and overprescription that has driven this national crisis. The Oklahoma case is the first to reach a verdict.

Key Opioid Supplier

Although Purdue Pharma has drawn the most public attention for its opioid marketing strategies, the Oklahoma suit alleged that Johnson & Johnson used similarly aggressive tactics to sell its own opioid products (such as Duragesic, a transdermal patch containing fentanyl) — and even disseminated messages that the company’s own scientific advisory board warned were misleading.

Nursing Education

However, this was only one facet of Johnson & Johnson’s role in the opioid business. The company’s Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco subsidiaries (both sold in 2016) were leading suppliers of the “narcotic raw materials” used in many common opioid medications.

According to internal company documents, Noramco supplied the active pharmaceutical ingredients for up to 54 percent of all U.S.-market hydrocodone; 60 percent of all U.S.-market codeine and morphine; and 65 percent of all U.S.-market oxycodone.

The oxycodone used in Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin is refined from the Norman poppy, a specially bred strain developed in Tasmanian Alkaloids poppy fields in the Australian island state of Tasmania.

Settlements and Verdict

Purdue and Teva both settled with the state prior to trial. Purdue agreed in March to pay $270 million while Teva Pharmaceuticals subsequently agreed to pay $85 million without admitting wrongdoing.

The trial against the remaining defendants  — Johnson & Johnson and several subsidiary companies — went forward. On August 26, Judge Thad Balkman ruled that their conduct did indeed create a public nuisance that “has negatively impacted the entire State.”  Under Oklahoma law, that makes the defendants liable for abating the nuisance they helped to create.

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The court agreed that the state’s proposed comprehensive opioid abatement plan was an appropriate remedy and ordered the defendants to pay the full cost of establishing and operating that plan for one year: $572,102,028.

Setting a Precedent

This judgment was actually considerably less than the state had asked for. Witnesses for the plaintiffs had argued that to truly alleviate Oklahoma’s opioid crisis, the abatement programs would need to run for 20 years or more, at a cost of $12.7 to $17.5 billion.

Judge Balkman ruled that “the State did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one.”  Nonetheless, the case sets an important precedent. “As a matter of law I find that Defendants’ actions caused harm,” Balkman wrote. “I further find that the State has satisfied its burden of proof and that the Defendants’ actions were the cause-in-fact of its injuries.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter lauded the ruling, saying, “Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addictions caused by their products.”  Representatives for Johnson & Johnson call the decision “flawed” and say they will appeal.


Aaron Severson is a freelance writer, editor, and writing consultant as well as the associate editor of Working Nurse.


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