In a civil case tried before a judge without a jury the State of Oklahoma is suing pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson alleging the company is responsible for the opioid crisis facing residents of Oklahoma. The suit seeks $17 billion over 30 years to address the effects of the opioid epidemic. Oklahoma has charged that Johnson & Johnson overstated the benefits of opioid prescriptions and understated the risks involved such as addiction and dependency. Further, the state alleged that Johnson & Johnson duped physicians into overprescribing opioids to their patients.
The case is significant because it appears to be the first to go to trial attempting to hold pharmaceutical manufacturers liable for the over-prescription and over-use of opioids. The suit originally included two co-defendant pharmaceutical companies, Purdue and Teva. However, each of these corporations has reached a settlement with the state. Purdue settled for $270 million earlier in the year, and Teva settled for $85 million on the eve of trial. These companies settled the lawsuit without admitting liability, which is common in civil settlements.
There are approximately 2000 cases brought by states and localities against pharmaceutical companies alleging complicity by the companies in the opioid crisis. There are 1900 consolidated cases pending in federal district court in Ohio. Trial in the Ohio cases is supposed to begin in October.
The suits against the pharmaceutical companies mimic in some respects the approach taken against cigarette companies in the cigarette litigation. If the government entities are successful, we can anticipate the possibility of attempted private suits by persons who became addicted to opioids and their survivors. To date there is no indication of criminal charges being filed against the pharmaceutical companies or their executives.