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Verdict In Oklahoma Opioid Lawsuit Will Be Watched Closely By Other States


The first major opioid trial in the country will end today in a state court in Norman, Okla. Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson for $17 billion, and a judge will deliver a decision this afternoon. Now, hundreds of state and city governments have sued the drug industry over its aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers so a lot of people will be watching this outcome carefully. Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation for NPR. He's been watching all this. Hey, Brian.


KING: So Johnson & Johnson is this iconic American company. It sells so many things. It sells Neutrogena products. It sells the famous baby powder. How did this company wind up in the middle of the opioid scandal?

MANN: Yeah. Oklahoma's Attorney General Mike Hunter, in filing this lawsuit, gave his answer to the question. Here he is talking during opening statements.


THAD BALKMAN: How did this happen?

MIKE HUNTER: At the end of the day, Your Honor, I have a short, one-word answer - greed.

MANN: Hunter's team argued in court that Johnson & Johnson sold prescription painkillers while downplaying the risks, contributing to this deadly addiction epidemic. He actually called the company a drug kingpin. So now Oklahoma wants Johnson & Johnson to pay to help clean up the mess.

KING: Well, it's interesting because other companies, like Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, they settled with Oklahoma before this trial started. But Johnson & Johnson said, no, we're not going to settle, we're going to fight. What's their defense?

MANN: They basically argued that they've been picked on by Oklahoma because they have really deep pockets. It's a huge corporation. They said they didn't actually sell that many opioid medications in the state, compared with other drug companies. One other interesting point, you know, they make is that these medications are FDA approved, highly regulated and prescribed by doctors. The government actually knew all along, year after year, exactly how many of these pain pills were being sold.

KING: All right. Well, there are many state governments, many local governments, that have filed lawsuits like this against drug companies. When we get this decision today, what does that tell us about those forthcoming cases?

MANN: Right. So this wave of lawsuits has caused the drug industry huge harm to their reputations. A lot of information's come out about their sales tactics, some of it, pretty unsavory. But bad press and public outrage, Noel, they don't always equal solid legal arguments. And that's what we're going to learn today. Will these cases hold up in court? Will Judge Thad Balkman agree that Johnson & Johnson violated the law and make them pay on the scale Oklahoma is claiming here, more than $17 billion?

If Oklahoma wins, the drug industry is going to get a clear signal. Its liability in this national opioid epidemic could be massive. Remember, more than 218,000 Americans have died from prescription drug overdoses. On the other hand, if Johnson & Johnson prevails or if the dollar amounts are small here, it could mean a lot of these lawsuits just fizzling out.

KING: So Brian, if Johnson & Johnson loses and they're forced to pay up to $17 billion, who gets that money?

MANN: Yeah. OK. So first, Noel, both sides are expected to appeal today's decision, no matter the outcome. But this question you ask, you know, where will the money go, it's become more and more contentious. Oklahoma rushed through a new law this summer requiring that any proceeds from opioid trials will go into the state treasury. That means lawmakers and the governor would decide how to spend this cash. It's still really unclear, though, how much of this money would actually go to help communities and families in Oklahoma suffering from the opioid addiction.

And I'll say, Noel, that this is a question, really, around the country that's also being watched. As these drug settlement amounts come in, already, we've seen half a billion dollars this year in other settlements. A lot of that money has not wound up going to people directly affected and harmed.

KING: Yeah. Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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