An Oklahoma judge on Monday handed down a landmark ruling when he found Johnson & Johnson culpable in Oklahoma’s opioid epidemic. The decision marks the first time a drugmaker has been held responsible for the national crisis. “At the root of this crisis was Johnson & Johnson, a company that literally created the poppy that became the source of the opioid crisis,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (R) charged. Hunter argued that the company was the “kingpin” of the epidemic, because it owned the two companies that grew, processed, and supplied 60 percent of the painkillers’ ingredients. Hunter also argued that the company was integral to a misinformation campaign that preyed on doctors in an effort to change the culture of prescribing opioids. At the start of the 1990s, doctors rarely prescribed the powerful drugs; by 2017, 479 opioid prescriptions were written every hour at pharmacies across the state.
Johnson & Johnson argued that it could not be held responsible because it supplied legal products and ingredients. The state’s case got around this argument by utilizing an unprecedented strategy to take down a corporation: treating them as a public nuisance. Nuisance laws are typically reserved for those who have used their property in a way that harms others, such as loud neighbors, brothels, or polluters. Oklahoma successfully argued that the drug company’s otherwise legal conduct endangered the “comfort, repose, health and safety of others,” and rendered citizens “insecure in life and in the use of property.” District Judge Thad Balkman ordered the company to pay $572 million in reparations. His decision could pave the way for the more than 40 other states working to win similar claims against the pharmaceutical industry.