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Johnson & Johnson Ordered to Pay $572M for Contributing to the Opioid Crisis in Landmark Ruling

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  • In a landmark decision, a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma for deceptive opioid marketing and for significantly contributing to the opioid crisis.
  • This is the first legal battle a pharmaceutical company has lost in relation to the opioid crisis, though attorneys for Johnson & Johnson say they will appeal the decision with the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
  • Monday’s decision could provide a precedent for future cases against companies manufacturing opioids, including a consolidated case of nearly 2,000 lawsuits that is set to be heard by a federal judge in Ohio this October.

Johnson & Johnson Loses Lawsuit

Johnson & Johnson became the first pharmaceutical company to lose a legal battle concerning accountability in relation to the opioid crisis after a judge slapped the company with a $572 million bill on Monday.

The case, part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Oklahoma, accused Johnson & Johnson of deceptive marketing that led, in part, to the opioid crisis the nation faces today. Judge Thad Balkman, who presided over the case, sided with the state in his opinion and found that Johnson & Johnson’s practices lead to higher rates of addiction and overdose.

“Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans,” Balkman said while announcing his decision in court. “Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.” 

“[Johnson & Johnson] promoted their specific opioids using misleading marketing,” Balkman wrote in his opinion. “Among other things, they sent sales representatives in Oklahoma doctors’ offices to deliver misleading messages, they disseminated misleading pamphlets, coupons, and other printed materials for patients and doctors, and they misleadingly advertised their drugs over the internet.”

While the state had asked for $17.5 billion, Judge Balkman said the state had not provided “sufficient evidence” of costs past the first year of a 30-year plan to cover a wide range of services. That plan includes treatment for victims, emergency care, law enforcement, social services, and other addiction-related needs.

Nonetheless, in a press conference immediately following the verdict, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called the decision a “great triumph” for the state.

“What we showed during our seven-week trial and what Judge Balkman confirmed today is what we know now for certain,” Hunter said. “Johnson & Johnson was the kingpin behind the nation’s opioid crisis.”

Meanwhile, an attorney representing Johnson & Johnson blasted the ruling and said the company will appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“Today’s decision represents a radical departure from more than a century of case law in this state,” attorney Sabrina Strong said on Monday. 

The case, which began in May, had also accused Teva Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma of similar practices, but the companies reached settlement agreements of $85 million and $270 million, respectively, before the trial began.

“Public Nuisance” Laws

The trial was argued under the basis of Oklahoma public nuisance laws, which has never been done against a pharmaceutical company. Generally, public nuisance laws pertain to property disputes, though the laws are broad in Oklahoma and can be applied to health-related issues, as well. 

During the trial, the state argued Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by spreading false information to everyone from the public to doctors prescribing medicine, fueling the opioid crisis. Part of that included advertising the drugs as “safe and effective,” essentially downplaying the drugs’ addictive qualities.

It also accused Johnson & Johnson of refining a highly-addictive opioid poppy, the raw products of which were later sold to other opioid manufacturers. In fact, through this mechanism, Johnson & Johnson supplies 60 percent of the opioid ingredients used by major opioid manufacturers.

The state also pointed to a wide range of statistics, notably, contending that more than 6,000 Oklahomans have died since 2000 because of opioid-related illnesses. The state also claimed that by 2017, pharmacies were filling an average of 479 opioid prescriptions an hour. 

On the defendant side, lawyers for Johnson & Johnson denied any misleading advertising. They also testified that the company shouldn’t be held liable, arguing the opioids were supplied legally and were tightly regulated by the FDA.

“No Oklahoma court has ever done what this court has done today in applying public nuisance law to any commercial activity, let alone the highly-regulated area of prescription medicines,” Strong said. “The decision violates well-established constitutional principles, including due process of law.” 

Lawyers also argued that the company only directly sold a relatively small amount of opioids, amounting to about 1% of all opioids sold in the country.

What This Decision Means for Similar Cases

Because of the nature of the case, it is being hailed as a landmark decision, and many believe it could set a precedent for upcoming cases. Not only is Johnson & Johnson being held accountable for the opioid epidemic, but it was also the first pharmaceutical company to have lost in a public nuisance lawsuit.

In October, a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio will oversee another major lawsuit, this one involving nearly 2,000 cases consolidated under one umbrella. If the plaintiffs are successful, that case could potentially pave the way for more lawsuits in 2020.

In 2017, the White House Council of Economic Advisers published an analysis attributing a cost of $504 billion to the opioid epidemic. Plaintiffs hope these lawsuits can recover those costs to pay for the destruction caused by the opioid crisis.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CBS News) (KOCO)

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New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns

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  • The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
  • The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
  • The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.

CDC Issues Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus. 

The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.

Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.

Mitigating Spread of Variant

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.

“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.

“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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Former Michigan Gov. and 8 Others Charged Over Flint Water Crisis

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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. (Al Goldis/AP)

  • Ex-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty Wednesday for his role in the Flint water crisis
  • By Thursday, eight more former state and city officials were charged with crimes ranging from involuntary manslaughter to extortion.
  • Flint residents have long awaited this news. In 2019, prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against 15 officials and said they would start the investigation from scratch, citing concerns about how the special counsel had conducted its probe.

Rick Snyder Charges

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said Thursday that it had filed 41 charges against nine former state and city officials for their role in the Flint water crisis.

The most high-profile figure to be charged was former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. On Wednesday, he was hit with two counts of willful neglect of duty.

He was the state’s top executive when local officials decided to switch the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River in 2014.

The switch was supposed to be a temporary cost-saving measure while a pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. However, the water wasn’t treated properly for corrosion, so lead-contaminated water was released into the homes of people all over the city. Because of that, 12 people died and at least 90 were sickened with Legionnaires’ disease.

Snyder appeared in court this morning via Zoom, pleading not guilty to the two misdemeanor charges. If convicted he could face up to a year in prison and as much as a $1,000 fine.

His charges alone are significant because they make him the first governor or former governor in the state to ever be charged with a crime for alleged conduct while in office.

8 Others Charged

Along with Snyder, eight others were charged, including a former state health director Nick Lyon. Lyon received nine charges of involuntary manslaughter, among others.

Richard Baird, one of Snyder’s closes advisors was changed for extortion, perjury, and obstructions of justice. Others who were charged include:

  • Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s former chief of staff and Vice President Mike Pence’s former communications director.
  • Dr. Eden Wells, a former chief medical executive for the state Department of Health and Human Services. 
  • Darnell Earley, former Flint finance director and state-appointed emergency manager.
  • Gerald Ambrose, former state-appointed emergency manager.
  • Howard Croft, former Flint Public Works Director.
  • Nancy Peeler, the state’s director of maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting for the health department.

Flint residents have waited a long time for justice over the water contamination issue. Prosecutors previously dropped all 15 criminal charges tied to the Flint case in 2019 and said the investigation would begin again from scratch.

At the time, they cited concerns about how the special counsel had conducted its probe.

It also wasn’t until last year that the state reached a $600 million settlement with victims, establishing a fund from which residents can file for compensation.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Detroit News) (Detroit Free Press)

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Three Lawmakers Test Positive for COVID-19 Following Capitol Attack

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  • At least three Congressmembers have tested positive for COVID-19 following Wednesday’s pro-Trump attack on the Capitol. 
  • Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) believe they contracted the virus after locking down in close quarters with numerous Republican lawmakers who refused to wear masks.
  • Jayapal and Schneider are calling for those who did not wear a mask to face consequences.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman Tests Positive

At least three members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19 after locking down in close quarters with other House members during Wednesday’s pro-Trump attack on the Capitol. 

Congress’ attending physician, Brian Monahan, warned that members may have been exposed during the lockdown. He recommended that everyone who was isolated inside should get tested for the virus. 

On Monday Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) became the first to announce that she tested positive. Watson Coleman believes she was exposed while in the Capitol lockdown. In her statement, she cited the multiple Republicans who refused to wear masks while inside. Video footage from Punchbowl News shows a Democratic lawmaker handing out masks and a handful of Republicans declining to take one. 

Watson Coleman is a 75-year-old lung cancer survivor. While she said she is only experiencing cold-like symptoms, she tweeted that per a doctor’s suggestion, she headed to a local hospital for antibody treatment. She also encouraged those who sheltered in place to get tested. 

More Cases Follow

Later on Monday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she too had tested positive, also blaming a lack of mask-wearing in the Capitol. In a lengthy Twitter thread, she said Republicans created a superspreader event and demanded consequences for their actions. 

Many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic—creating a superspreader event ON TOP of a domestic terrorist attack,” she wrote. 

“Any Member who refuses to wear a mask should be fully held accountable,” Jayapal added. 

“I’m calling for every single Member who refuses to wear a mask in the Capitol to be fined and removed from the floor by the Sergeant at Arms.”

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) echoed her frustrations on Tuesday after releasing a statement saying he has become the third House member to have tested positive following the lockdown. 

“Today, I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife’s health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers who put their own contempt and disregard for decency ahead of the health and safety of their colleagues and our staff,” he wrote.

Like Jayapal, he is calling for sanctions against those who opted to not wear masks. 

Many health officials feared that this lockdown could lead to a surge in cases. They also worry that the mob itself could lead to a superspreader event as most of those who attacked the Capitol were not wearing masks and were crowding together both inside and outside of the building.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (NBC Chicago)

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