Oklahoma judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County ordered Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries to pay $572 million into a state fund to help reduce the opioid crisis in Oklahoma. This ruling was the first of its kind to make it to a final ruling. It comes as nearly 2,000 lawsuits, filed by various government authorities across all levels, are set to be heard by a federal judge in Ohio.
The order was handed down because Judge Balkman found the “opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to all of us”. Balkman also found that Johnson & Johnson misled consumers about both the effectiveness of their products and their addictive nature. According to Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, 4,600 people died from opioid overdoses from 2007-2017. Overall, 12,757 people died from overdoes deaths from prescription painkillers in 2018, a decrease of about 2,000 deaths from the year before. This is good news, especially when considering a report from the Center for Disease Control shows that the number of overdose related deaths will likely decrease in the future. However, opioid related deaths are on the rise, despite overall overdose related deaths falling.
This is likely just the beginning of a heavy trend that will see several other courts issue rulings of similar natures, if history is indicative. In Oklahoma, the ruling was based on the State’s public nuisance statute. It remains to be seen if that can be an effective statute to seek damages in other states. Johnson & Johnson will likely face a severe blow to their brand trust and the financial effect of that also remains to be seen.