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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Holding Pharmaceutical Companies Accountable for the Opioid Epidemic

Opioid pills

The opioid crisis has impacted communities, cities and states across the country. Between 1999 and 2017, more than 215,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of deaths was six times higher in 2017 than 1999, with an average of 130 people dying of an overdose every day. This prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

While responsibility for the epidemic is widespread, many cite the over-prescription and distribution of opioids as the key contributing factor. As a result, numerous lawsuits have been filed against prescription drug manufacturers and distributors in states throughout the country.

In what many are considering a landmark ruling, in August an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state’s opioid crisis. This is the first time an opioid manufacturer has been held accountable in court and made to pay damages to help abate the crisis. Many are hoping it is just the first of many such verdicts.

The lawsuit, filed by the state’s Attorney General Mike Hunter, accused the company of creating a public nuisance by lying in its marketing of the drugs Duragesic and Nucynta. Oklahoma District Judge Thad Balkman concluded that Johnson & Johnson wasn’t merely a negligent bystander, but that it actively engaged in deceptive trade practices “designed to convince doctors, patients and the public that opioids were safe and effective for the long-term treatment of chronic, non-malignant pain.” Johnson & Johnson has said it would appeal the verdict and ask the judge to put his ruling on hold.

The Oklahoma ruling does not put an end to the trouble for pharmaceutical companies. A consolidated case of more than 2,000 lawsuits will go to trial in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, in October. The nationwide suit was filed in Ohio because of the state’s high opioid overdose rate and its proximity to various drugmakers’ headquarters. Another 400 cases are being fought over in state courts, many of them brought by state attorney generals.

While the Oklahoma verdict represents the first loss at trial for the industry, some drug companies have chosen to settle lawsuits brought by states, counties and municipalities. For example, Oklahoma also settled with Purdue Pharma, known for producing and marketing the opioid painkiller OxyContin, for $270 million and Teva for $85 million.

The defendants across the different lawsuits vary, but the allegations and companies involved are relatively consistent. Johnson & Johnson is a common defendant and Purdue Pharma has been named in most, if not all lawsuits. (Both companies are defendants in the Ohio case.) Purdue is widely blamed for igniting the prescription opioid crisis in the U.S. after mounting an aggressive marketing effort that persuaded doctors to prescribe OxyContin more widely and at higher doses. Back in 2007, company executives admitted in federal court during a $600 million settlement that the company’s practices and interactions with doctors had understated the addictive potential of the drug.

Purdue is currently negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement with lawyers for local and state governments that would resolve about 2,000 lawsuits filed against the company. In addition to Oklahoma, more than 40 other states have filed lawsuits in their own courts against Purdue and other companies in the pharmaceutical industry. Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (reorganization) protection on September 15, 2019.

As these lawsuits work their way through the courts, individuals who have been affected by the opioid crisis can still take legal action. If you have questions or are seeking legal advice and counsel, please call us at 973-509-8500 x213 or email

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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