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Oklahoma Judge Rules Johnson & Johnson To Pay $572 Million To Help Ease Opioid Crisis


A landmark ruling has been delivered in the legal fight over who should pay the costs of the country's opioid epidemic. A state judge in Oklahoma has ruled that Johnson & Johnson should pay $572 million to help ease that state's crisis. Oklahoma had asked for as much as 17 billion from the company.

Jackie Fortier of StateImpact Oklahoma was in court for the decision.

Hey, Jackie.


KELLY: Hey. So walk us through the reasoning here. How did the judge explain this ruling?

FORTIER: Well, I mean, the judge, like, very clearly blamed Johnson & Johnson's misleading marketing and promotion of opioids. I mean, he almost, you know, quoted the state attorneys in his decision. He said that those actions compromised the health and safety of Oklahomans. And that was evidenced by the increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths, neonatal abstinence syndrome in the state. And then to abate it, he awarded the state more than half a billion dollars.

KELLY: So he's awarded more than half a billion dollars. That's, of course, considerably less than the 17 billion that the state of Oklahoma was asking for, and I'm curious how reaction to that is playing out. Start with Oklahoma's attorney general. What's he saying?

FORTIER: Well, the judge said in his decision that the state had only proved one year of the cost of fighting the epidemic, which is why he awarded a little over $570 million to the state.


FORTIER: And the state had been asking - right - so the state had been asking for 30 years' worth of abatement. In his press conference after the verdict - I mean, it was really quick after the verdict. It was a 42-page decision, so he hadn't read it all yet. But Attorney General Mike Hunter was optimistic. He even encouraged other states to sue opioid drugmakers.


MIKE HUNTER: What we showed during our seven-week trial and what Judge Balkman confirmed today is what we know now for certain. Johnson & Johnson was the kingpin behind the nation's ongoing opioid crisis.

KELLY: Now, for its part, Johnson & Johnson has already said it will appeal this. What else are they saying?

FORTIER: Sabrina Strong, which is one of the lawyers for Johnson & Johnson - they also held a press conference this afternoon. You know, they made the same points that they did during the trial - that each opioid the company made took a long time to develop, that company and federal regulators continued to monitor the drugs. And she actually turned it. She blamed the opioid crisis on illicit drugs rather than prescription drugs. And she also said that by licensing doctors and pharmacists - that the state had its own oversight responsibility.

KELLY: I want to ask how this might play beyond Oklahoma because this case was getting a lot of attention, at least in part because it will set the scene for this much bigger federal case in Ohio that involves thousands of local and county governments trying to win money from the drug industry. Too soon to ask you what kind of signal this will send?

FORTIER: Yeah, you're exactly right. I mean, public nuisance, which was the claim in this case, is also one of the claims in that consolidated Ohio case. It really sends the signal to those municipalities that are suing that they have a case. Those drug companies and distributors may be a little bit more willing to settle now that they've seen that they could potentially be on the hook for over half a billion dollars, like Johnson & Johnson is now. Purdue Pharma settled with the state for $270 million before the trial, which is a much smaller amount of money than Johnson & Johnson may not be - may be on the hook for, you know, not just in Oklahoma, but in other states.

KELLY: OK. Thank you, Jackie.

FORTIER: Thank you.

KELLY: Jackie Fortier - she was in court today for that ruling that Johnson & Johnson is liable for a portion of Oklahoma's opioid epidemic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Fortier