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How the $572 million ruling against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma could affect Maryland

Judge Thad Balkman reads a summary of his decision in the opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Balkman ruled in favor of the state of Oklahoma and ordered Johnson and Johnson to pay $572 million to a plan to abate the opioid crisis. (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman via AP, Pool)
Judge Thad Balkman reads a summary of his decision in the opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Balkman ruled in favor of the state of Oklahoma and ordered Johnson and Johnson to pay $572 million to a plan to abate the opioid crisis. (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman via AP, Pool) (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman/AP)

Maryland municipalities who are suing companies in the prescription opioid industry for their alleged role in fueling the state’s opioid addiction problem got an encouraging sign Monday as an Oklahoma judge ruled Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries must pay the state $572 million for its role in that state’s addiction problem.

The ruling by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman is the first of its kind in the country and could help shape similar lawsuits filed against the pharmaceutical giant and others. A large collection of cases filed by municipalities throughout the country are being overseen by a federal judge in Ohio.

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Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson say they will appeal the ruling.

In Maryland, a number of municipal governments have sued Johnson & Johnson and others in the opioid industry as they argue their alleged deceptive practices played a significant role in fueling an addiction crisis in which 2,114 people died as a result of opioids last year.

Carroll County filed a lawsuit against the company and others earlier this month, joining Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and other municipalities in suing companies in the opioid industry.

Steve Silverman, a Baltimore-based attorney who handles class action litigation, said Monday’s ruling is encouraging for those Maryland counties suing the company.

“I think it’s an affirmation to a lot of entities around the country that they should continue” with their lawsuits, Silverman said.

Oklahoma had argued Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance through deceptive marketing practices and that it overstated how effective the drugs were while downplaying concerns about its drug’s addictive properties.

In Anne Arundel County’s lawsuit, the county is arguing Johnson & Johnson, along with other drug manufacturers, “informed and instructed doctors that opioids could be taken in higher and higher doses without disclosing the increased risk to patients.”

But Silverman also said the amount awarded to Oklahoma was significantly less than what the state had requested Johnson & Johnson pay, which could affect settlements down the road.

A sample of the number of county and municipal governments in Maryland have filed lawsuits against companies in the prescription opioid industry in the last two years.
A sample of the number of county and municipal governments in Maryland have filed lawsuits against companies in the prescription opioid industry in the last two years.

Attorneys for Oklahoma had argued the state would need as much as $17.8 billion over the next 30 years to address the problems caused by the crisis.

But after Oklahoma settled with Purdue Pharma for $270 million in March and settled with Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million in May, Silverman said the $572 million ruling in Oklahoma “may set some parameters for resolutions down the road.”

In a statement, Annapolis spokeswoman Mitchelle Stephenson said the ruling “is not going to have a direct bearing on the city’s case" but that it may affect future settlement talks. The city sued companies in the opioid industry independent of Anne Arundel County and will have its suit heard in Ohio.

“It doesn’t set a legal precedent that is applicable here, but it may set a guidepost for future settlements,” she wrote.

Officials for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County did not return calls for comment about how the ruling could affect their cases.

Silverman said the Oklahoma judge’s ruling “certainly sets a tone that may have an effect on the litigation” in Ohio.

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“I think it’s certainly empowering that a trier of fact [Judge Balkman] saw the way the state of Oklahoma viewed the landscape,” Silverman said.

Oklahoma officials have touted this themselves, with Attorney General Mike Hunter saying Monday, “We did it in Oklahoma. You can do it elsewhere.”

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