WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — An Oklahoma judge ruled this week that manufacturing giant Johnson & Johnson is partially responsible for the nearly 6,000 opioid overdose deaths in that state.
It’s a signal that a federal case could have a similar outcome, experts say.
The Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $500 million in damages for recklessly marketing highly addictive painkillers.
“Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans,” Judge Thad Balkman said in making his decision.
“Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addiction,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter celebrated at a press conference.
The case sets the state for a federal court battle that will play out in Ohio starting in October. With some 400,000 opioid-related deaths nationwide, nearly 2,000 governmental bodies from 48 states are demanding that drug makers pay up — though it’s not yet clear what figure is on the table.
“The (Oklahoma) decision is a game changer,” said Peter Meyers, who has taught drug law for more than three decades at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He said the huge dollar number involved in the case may cause drug companies to have second thoughts about continuing a court battle.
“This certainly would encourage, I would think, settlement of this massive — much more massive — case,” Meyers said.
He estimated that a federal ruling could involve billions of dollars. The White House calculates that the opioid crisis had cost the nation about $500 billion as of 2015.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, applauded the Oklahoma ruling, but wants to make sure the public benefits from the money.
“We need to make sure that any settlement funds are used to address the addiction crisis in a meaningful and comprehensive way,” he said in a statement.
The money is supposed to go directly toward addiction treatment.
Lawyers for Johnson & Johnson have promised to appeal.