Oklahoma has won a judgment of more than $572 million against corporate health care giant Johnson & Johnson after showing that the company’s role in the state’s opioid crisis created a public nuisance that “compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans.”
The company says Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s verdict is wrong and has promised an appeal.
But for now, we’ll take the court’s decision on its face, and declare it another significant victory for the state and Attorney General Mike Hunter. Combined with two previous settlements with opioid manufacturers, the state looks to get more than $900 million in justified compensation from big drug companies.
A judgment of $572 million is big by any standard, but it’s a lot less than the $17 billion the state had asked for. The larger number anticipated the many years it would take for the state to recover from the opioid crisis. Balkman’s judgment says his number covers only one year’s costs for the state, and future orders are a possibility.
Hunter’s decision to pursue Oklahoma’s opioid cases independently of the multistate case pending in Ohio was brave. If he had lost, he risked being blamed for the state absorbing all the opioid crisis costs. His boldness and his success means the state won’t have to split compensation with other litigants and has less risk of losing some or all of its settlements if a drug company declares bankruptcy.
The temptation of a $572 million windfall is to celebrate, and it certainly beats losing. But we haven’t lost sight of the fact that the money is compensation for the state’s costs in a horrific crisis.
Both sides agreed that some 2,100 Oklahomans died of unintentional prescription opioid overdoses from 2011-2015; that more than 326 million opioid pills were dispensed in the state in 2015 alone, equivalent to 110 pills for every adult Oklahoman; and that, in 2017, 4.2% of babies covered by the state’s Medicaid program were born with withdrawal conditions associated with drug exposure in the womb.
Such human tragedy puts Monday’s justice in perspective and is the mark of shame forever upon those responsible.