Opioid trial judge 'a man of deep conviction'

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman speaks during a civil trial between the state of Oklahoma and Johnson & Johnson in his Norman courtroom. (Chris Landsberger / Pool)

NORMAN, OKLA. — In the first verdict of its kind, a Cleveland County, Oklahoma, district judge ruled Monday that pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is responsible for causing the state’s opioid epidemic.

Judge Thad Balkman ordered the opioid manufacturer to pay $572 million to help fix it.

Balkman ruled that the New Jersey-based company caused a public nuisance by creating and feeding a devastating opioid epidemic in Oklahoma by using misleading advertising from the painkiller.

The verdict, though, was only a partial victory for state leaders, who wanted the New Jersey-based company to pay $17.5 billion in damages.

Still, Oklahoma’s case is notable as it is the first case of its kind to go to trial. Thousands of lawsuits filed by states, tribes and local governments are pending.

Johnson & Johnson — along with its subsidiary Janssen — denied wrongdoing during the eight-week trial. The opioid company plans to appeal.

During trial, attorneys for the company argued that it only had a small share of Oklahoma’s Medicaid prescriptions for opioids and — as deaths linked to other companies’ products were spiking — Janssen’s were actually going down.

The company argued that U.S. Food and Drug Administration label requirements guide promotion and address risks. Johnson & Johnson’s marketing and physician education were consistent with federal requirements, and it’s the doctor’s responsibility to read product labels.

This story is developing and will be updated.

Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma Capitol Bureau Chief for CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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