1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Landmark US opioid trial begins

May 29, 2019

Consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson has gone on trial in Oklahoma over its contribution to the state's opioid crisis. The case could set a precedent for thousands of other US lawsuits against drug manufacturers.

Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/C. Ohde

A multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest drug manufacturers in the world, went to trial on Tuesday in the central US state of Oklahoma.

It is the first state trial against drug makers blamed for contributing to an opioid addiction epidemic in the United States, which has killed tens of thousands of Americans.

The trial could bring to light documents and testimony that show what companies knew about the effects of opioids, when they knew it and how they responded.

The case could become a precedent for the roughly 1,500 other opioid lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments, cases that have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter during opening arguments on TuesdayImage: picture-alliance/AP/S. Ogrocki

'Time to hold them responsible'

In opening statements, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said powerful painkillers have led to the "worst man-made health crisis" in US history. The state accused Johnson & Johnson of being motivated by greed in embarking on "a cynical, deceitful multimillion-dollar brainwashing campaign" to sell opioids as a "magic drug."

"It's time to hold them responsible for their actions," Hunter told the presiding judge, who will decide the case rather than a jury. "The crisis is devastating Oklahoma."

Hunter said that opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.

Read more: Britain's opioid crisis takes on US dimension

Agency approved

Johnson & Johnson has denied the charges, as has its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical. 

Larry Ottaway, the lead attorney for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, pointed to the fact that federal and state agencies approved and monitored its painkillers Nucynta and Duragesic. He also said that doctors and pharmacists had long been familiar with its opioid medications and their addictive qualities.

"Both pharmacists and physicians have an independent responsibility to prescribe and monitor these drugs," Ottaway said.

"[Janssen] provided medically necessary medications for the treatment of terrible, terrible problems. Those treatments were approved and regulated by the FDA (US Food & Drug Administration)."

He added that Duragesic, a pain patch containing the opioid fentanyl, represented only a tiny fraction of the opioid market and was not widely abused or sold on the street like other drugs.

"It has low rates of addiction and low rates of diversion," Ottaway said of Duragesic. "When you hear about pill mills, you don't hear about patches."

Two other drug companies named in the lawsuit, Purdue Pharma and Teva, settled before the case went to trial. Teva, an Israeli pharmaceutical giant, settled for $85 million, while Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, reached a $270 million settlement with the state in March.

dv/se (AFP, AP)

Every evening, DW sends out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.