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Trial judge admits $107 million error in state opioid case verdict against Johnson & Johnson

Trial judge admits $107 million error in state opioid case verdict against Johnson & Johnson

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Opioid Lawsuit Oklahoma

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said he will correct the error in an upcoming ruling. His announcement could mean the judgment will be cut to $465 million. Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman file

NORMAN — A judge acknowledged Tuesday that he made a $107 million math error in his verdict in the state’s opioid case.

“That will be the last time I use that calculator,” said Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

The judge in August ordered Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries to pay $572 million to help abate the public nuisance that he ruled was caused by misleading marketing of opioid painkillers. The state had sought more than $17 billion.

The judge said he will correct the error in an upcoming ruling. His announcement could mean the judgment will be cut to $465 million, but that will not necessarily be the case.

The judge took under advisement on Tuesday other legal issues that could significantly increase or decrease the amount he will award the state when he issues his final decision.

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries want the judge to reduce the judgment against them even further — another $355 million — to give them credit for the state’s settlements with other drug companies before trial. A group headed by Purdue Pharma agreed to pay the state $270 million to settle their case, and a group headed by Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. agreed to pay the state $85 million.

Johnson & Johnson attorney Sabrina Strong argued that those payments should be offset against the judgment to decrease the amount Johnson & Johnson is required to pay.

Attorneys for the state disagreed.

They want the judge to maintain jurisdiction of the case and review every year whether the public nuisance has been resolved. That proposed procedure could result in additional payments to the state by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries — potentially raising payments Oklahoma would receive much closer to the $17 billion it originally requested.

The judge in August had explained that his $572,102,028 verdict for the state covers year one of an abatement plan.

“Though several of the State’s witnesses testified that the plan ‘will take at least 20 years’ to work, the State did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one, to abate the Opioid Crisis,” the judge wrote in August.

On Tuesday, attorney Bradley Beckworth argued for the state that public nuisance law requires the judge to retain jurisdiction of the case and make sure the state’s opioid crisis is fully abated, even if the process takes many years and requires Johnson & Johnson to pay a lot more money.

“We don’t think there’s a choice there,” Beckworth said. “You can’t abate it halfway. You have to abate it all the way.”

Johnson & Johnson attorney Stephen Brody countered that it would be an “illegitimate exercise of judicial power” to allow the state to come back to court year after year and argue that it was entitled to additional money based on evidence the judge had already determined to be insufficient.

At the close of a hearing Tuesday, the judge acknowledged that he had meant to order Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $107,683 — not $107,683,000 — to develop and disseminate treatment evaluation standards for neonatal abstinence syndrome, which was part of the abatement effort he approved.

Balkman did not say when he plans to issue his final order, but it is not unusual for judges to take up to 30 days to issue final orders after hearing arguments.

Regardless of the amount of the judgment Balkman ultimately awards, it is not expected to be the end of the issue. Johnson & Johnson has already sought Oklahoma Supreme Court review.

Prescription opioids were linked to more than 6,100 Oklahoma deaths from 2000-2017. Balkman ruled in August that Johnson & Johnson and its affiliates helped trigger the state’s opioid crisis by carrying out an elaborate and deceptive marketing campaign that portrayed opioids as less addictive and deadly than they are.

The judge made his ruling after listening to 33 days of testimony in a trial that included testimony from 42 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits.

Nolan Clay contributed to this story.

rellis@oklahoman.com

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