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Opioid Drugs

California Plaintiffs Face Off Against Drug Makers in Court

— April 23, 2021

J&J and other drug makers prepare for trial against Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and Orange counties, and the city of Oakland.

Several California counties have argued that drug makers Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Endo International Plc. and AbbVie Inc.’s Allergan arm helped fuel the deadly opioid epidemic through deceptive marketing practices.  The case has been brought by Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and Orange counties, and the city of Oakland, all of whom believe that the drug makers should pay more than $50 billion, plus penalties.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Fidelma Fitzpatrick, told Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson that their case was about “the companies’ deadly legacy of promoting opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain, resulting in a mountain of addictive pills flooding the state and country.” Fitzpatrick added, “The evidence will show each of these companies, all of them, knew what would happen: that their opioids would cause the crushing burden of addiction, overdose and death that California and its people have experienced.”

California Plaintiffs Face Off Against Drug Makers in Court
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Defense attorneys for the drug makers responded that their products were merely a “small part of the overall opioid market, that doctors were warned of their risks and that the counties could not prove they caused the health crisis.” Teva’s counsel, Collie James, explained, “You won’t hear from a single doctor who was ever misled.”

Mike Yoder, J&J’s attorney, argued that its addictive painkillers are no longer marketed to the public and were rarely abused.  He said, “They did not cause any opioid crisis, and they did not cause any public nuisance.”

John Hueston, Endo’s attorney, said the plaintiffs were “litigating over a handful of innocuous statements the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved.”  He added, “That’s game over.  Under the law, whatever the FDA says was gospel.”

In 2019, J&J was ordered to pay $465 million to the state of Oklahoma, a decision in which the drug maker is appealing.  Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, said at the time that between 2015 and 2018, 18 million opioid prescriptions were written in a state with a population of only 3.9 million and his office had estimated that 6,000 Oklahomans died from overdoses.  This number only included fatalities and did not account for the many others still struggling with addiction.

“Today Judge (Thad) Balkman has affirmed our position that Johnson & Johnson, motivated by greed and avarice, is responsible for the opioid epidemic in our state,” Hunter responded to the settlement. “Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addiction caused by their activities.  The company used pseudoscience and misleading information to downplay the risks of opioids leading to the worst man-made public nuisance our state and this country has ever seen.”

In a statement about the Oklahoma case, Michael Ullmann, the general counsel and executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson, argued the much of the same sentiments that the company is today in the California case.  He said that “Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts, nor the law, support this outcome.  We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected.”

Since that time, there have been numerous cases brought to U.S. courts related to the opioid epidemic.  More than 3,300 similar lawsuits are pending nationally.


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