MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The first court ruling in a wave of lawsuits against the drug industry was decided today. A state judge in Oklahoma ruled that Johnson & Johnson should pay more than $570 million to help ease that state's opioid addiction crisis. The state had asked for as much as 17 billion from the company.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann joins me now via Skype to talk about this decision.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So the judge here, Judge Balkman - what did he say about Johnson & Johnson? How did he explain this ruling?
MANN: You know, he was very measured, very professional in tone but, at the same time, really laid out a devastating view of Johnson & Johnson's behavior here, concluding that the company used misleading marketing pushing the sale of these addictive opioid medications. Here he is speaking from the bench.
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THAD BALKMAN: Defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.
MANN: And so he concluded that it's the company's responsibility to pay roughly half a billion dollars to help solve this public health crisis.
KELLY: So half a billion dollars - obviously a lot less than the $17 billion Oklahoma was looking for. Is there some way to view this as at least a partial win for Johnson & Johnson?
MANN: Yeah. Johnson & Johnson signaled that that's not how they view it by announcing immediately that they'll appeal this decision. And the reason it's not good - a good sign for the company is, first, that this ruling is, for one, relatively small, a relatively low-population state. So when you multiply their possible liability over the entire U.S. that's been hit by this addiction epidemic, the dollar figures could run into many billions of dollars.
Another problem for Johnson & Johnson is that their argument here that government regulators and doctors were the ones more directly at fault in this epidemic - you know, those arguments just didn't work in this courtroom. And so it's going to be interesting to see how that plays going forward. But, again, Johnson & Johnson says they will keep fighting this going forward.
KELLY: Do we know, in the meantime, how Oklahoma plans to spend the money?
MANN: So there was a new state law pushed through in Oklahoma just this summer that basically mandates that any money - if this does survive appeal, any money will go into the state's general fund, and that means lawmakers and the governor will decide how it's spent.
And this could get messy, you know, and controversial. People worry that this opioid money could be diverted in the same way that tobacco money was often diverted back in the 1990s. Addiction advocates, of course, hope to see a lot of this money go to communities and to families that have been hit hard by this epidemic.
KELLY: And in the short moments we have left, Brian, you flagged there what this might mean for Johnson & Johnson going forward. What about, you know, all these 2,000 local and state governments that have filed similar lawsuits? What signal might this send about liability across the industry?
MANN: Yeah. This is really a powerful moment when all of these companies have to really look at what their potential exposure could be. This has been a devastating year for the pharmaceutical industry. A lot of information has come out about their practices, much of it really unsavory.
And there are a lot more of these trials just kind of queued up to the horizon, including a big federal trial in Oklahoma (ph). The federal judge there, Dan Polster, has been pushing the industry to try to reach a big national settlement.
KELLY: And we will see what happens there. Brian Mann, I'm going to have to leave it there.
Thanks so much.
MANN: All right, thank you.
KELLY: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio.
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