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Yesterday's first-of-its-kind court decision ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay Oklahoma more than a half-billion dollars sets the stage for a wave of opioid lawsuits across the U.S. Legal experts say it was a big win for the state but also for thousands of similar cases against drug companies. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Public outrage over the opioid epidemic has grown steadily as more Americans die every day from prescription drug overdoses. But Carl Tobias, an expert on opioid litigation who teaches at the University of Richmond, says this ruling was the first sign that legal claims against drug companies might have real traction.
CARL TOBIAS: These states and localities could take heart that they may well be able to impose liability.
MANN: Here's why legal experts contacted by NPR say the drug industry should worry. During the seven-week trial in Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson argued that this crisis was caused in large part by government regulators and doctors, not drugmakers. Here's Johnson & Johnson attorney Sabrina Strong.
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SABRINA STRONG: The evidence at trial showed that the company manufactured and marketed those medicines in compliance with strict regulations by the FDA and the DEA.
MANN: But Cheryl Healton, dean of NYU's College of Global Public Health, says this blame the government narrative just didn't work with Judge Balkman. She thinks that's a wakeup call for dozens of other drugmakers and distributors.
CHERYL HEALTON: It's very much a shot across the bow. And the case does not say that there are not others responsible. They're saying we find you responsible in this amount. And they're heavily responsible because they lied not only to the public, but they lied to providers as well.
MANN: Johnson & Johnson says it will appeal, a process that could take years, and the half-billion-dollar amount is a fraction of the money Oklahoma officials asked for and say they need to respond to the epidemic. But the next big opioid case goes to trial in federal court in October in Ohio. And Paul Hanly, one of the attorneys suing the drug industry there, says the stakes could grow fast.
PAUL HANLY: If you extrapolate that amount across all cases that Johnson & Johnson is facing, you are in the tens of billions of dollars.
MANN: Two dozen drug companies are defendants in that case. And legal experts say yesterday's ruling showed another kind of risk they face to their reputations. These lawsuits have revealed for the first time just how aggressively and misleadingly some firms marketed prescription opioids, even as the death toll from overdoses grew. Here's Judge Balkman in court yesterday speaking about Johnson & Johnson.
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THAD BALKMAN: Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis.
MANN: Similar revelations have already tipped one company, INSYS Therapeutics, into bankruptcy and shredded the public reputation of another firm, Purdue Pharma. Richard Ausness follows opioid litigation closely and teaches law at the University of Kentucky. He says Johnson & Johnson and other companies run the risk of being permanently linked to a deadly epidemic.
RICHARD AUSNESS: If this sort of narrative shifts from Purdue to J&J being the villain in the piece, that's going to be really bad for them.
MANN: Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond says after Oklahoma, the risk of bad publicity and billions of dollars in potential liability could cause companies to cut deals before the much bigger federal trial begins in October.
TOBIAS: I think that may lead some of the defendants to more seriously consider settlement.
MANN: More companies have been making deals. Teva and Purdue reach settlements with Oklahoma earlier this summer worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One of the nation's biggest drug distributors, McKesson, settled with the state of West Virginia in May. The judge overseeing the big federal trial in Ohio has been pushing hard to reach a national settlement. So far, that's proved elusive, but negotiations are continuing.
Brian Mann, NPR News.
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