Editor’s note: This story was updated the morning of Jan. 3 to include a statement emailed by Johnson & Johnson after the story was published.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Thursday continued his legal offensive against companies that have profited from opioids, announcing a new lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary.
The 78-page complaint, filed Thursday in King County Superior Court, asks that Johnson & Johnson pay the state the amount of money the company has made from selling opioids in Washington, in addition to civil penalties and damages. That precise dollar figure is unknown (it would surface during the discovery period of the lawsuit), but Ferguson said he’s confident it’s in the millions. Any money the state receives would be put toward opioid addiction prevention and treatment, Ferguson said.
The lawsuit is part of Ferguson’s legal strategy to bring cases he believes the state can win against companies that either manufacture or distribute prescription opioids such as oxycodone.
In an emailed statement, Johnson & Johnson expressed sympathy for those affected by opioids but defended its marketing and promotion as “appropriate and responsible,” saying its prescription opioid medications have accounted for less than 1% of opioids prescribed in the United States.
“The company intends to defend vigorously against the Attorney General’s allegations,” the email stated. “We believe litigation is not the answer to public health crises, and we continue to work with partners to help communities in need.”
Johnson & Johnson, along with its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical, not only is a manufacturer of prescription opioids but also has developed and sold the raw ingredients for the medications to other manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, Ferguson said. The state brought a complaint against Purdue Pharma in 2017; a trial date next month was superseded by Purdue filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In a press conference announcing the lawsuit, flanked by his legal team and two mothers who lost children to opioid addiction, Ferguson ticked off a litany of grim statistics: On average, two Washingtonians die of opioid overdoses every day, he said. And between 2006 and 2017, opioid overdoses killed about 8,000 people in Washington — more than car accidents or firearms, he said.
“Opioids are devastating our families,” he said, adding that in a 2018 survey, staff from the AG’s office who work on child-neglect cases said opioids are involved in about half of cases of children being removed from their parents.
Washington is one of many governments filing suits recently in response to the opioid epidemic. Johnson & Johnson agreed in October to pay two Ohio counties more than $20 million, about a month after an Oklahoma judge ordered the company to pay $572 million in a suit over its marketing of opioids in that state.
The money from these kinds of suits is an important way to fund programs that help people who have become addicted to opioids, said Lisa Janicki, one of the mothers at Ferguson’s Thursday press conference. Janicki is a Skagit County commissioner and a member of that county’s board of health.
The youngest of Janicki’s five children, Patrick — a college graduate, an Eagle Scout and a Rotarian — died in 2017 at age 30 after becoming addicted to the painkillers he was prescribed for a back injury he’d sustained a decade before. Patrick had health insurance and a support system, but those didn’t save him, she said, arguing that more must be done to prevent and treat opioid addiction.
“When we are losing our children, we are failing,” she said.
The complaint filed Thursday asserts that, in the 1990s, Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries including Janssen Pharmaceutical set out to develop a new variety of poppy, a necessary component of opioid drugs, to meet an anticipated increase in the demand for oxycodone, and the resulting raw products were then shipped to U.S. opioid manufacturers.
Ferguson’s suit also alleges Janssen “overstated the effectiveness of its drugs for treating pain, understated the risk of addiction and overstated the effectiveness of risk mitigation strategies that Janssen claimed, without evidence, could render opioid use safe.”
Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit Ferguson brought last year against three opioid distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug — is set for an October trial.
“The bottom line,” Ferguson said Thursday, “is that Johnson & Johnson, like others, must be held accountable for the harm they have caused Washington state and Washington families.”
Editor’s note: Out of concern for those affected by this story and their loved ones, the comment thread has been removed.