J&J, with $20M settlement, becomes latest drugmaker to sidestep bellwether opioid trial

Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay two Ohio counties $20 million to avoid an upcoming opioid bellwether trial. (J&J)

As the first bellwether trial in the national opioid litigation nears, Johnson & Johnson has become the latest drugmaker to ink a small settlement with the plaintiffs, dodging it altogether.

In a deal with Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, the drug giant will pay $20.4 million to resolve their claims and not admit liability for a role in the opioid epidemic that's ravaged the country. With the deal, four drugmakers—Allergan, Endo, Mallinckrodt and J&J—have handed the counties a combined sum of more than $60 million.  

J&J will pay $10 million in cash, plus $5 million for the counties' legal expenses and $5.4 million in charitable contributions to nonprofits helping deal with the opioid crisis in the northeastern Ohio counties. The company maintains it marketed its opioids responsibly, and it said in a statement that it's "open to identifying an appropriate, comprehensive resolution of the overall opioid litigation."

"At the same time, the company remains prepared to defend its actions," J&J said.

The bellwether trial is set to begin Oct. 24 and will be the first of thousands of opioid lawsuits from cities and counties to reach trial. As drugmakers have inked settlements one after another, distributors are now taking center stage in the trial. Teva is the last manufacturer that hasn't settled, SVB Leerink analyst Ami Fadia wrote in a note. 

Some 2,500 cities, counties and other entities have sued opioid drugmakers and distributors, alleging pharma companies oversold the benefits of pain treatment with opioids and downplayed their risks, while distributors failed to monitor suspicious orders. Altogether, the conduct created a nationwide crisis, the lawsuits say. More than 40 states have sued as well. 

Purdue last month became the first drugmaker to enter a “global” settlement, valued at $10 billion to $12 billion, to resolve the litigation. Under the deal—which includes about half of state attorneys general—Purdue will declare bankruptcy and establish a trust so that the company’s resources can benefit the public going forward. The deal includes a $3 billion cash contribution from Purdue's founding Sackler family, plus proceeds from ongoing drug sales and drug donations. 

RELATED: With clock ticking before bellwether trial, opioid makers consider participating in Purdue settlement: WSJ 

While some attorneys general support the arrangement, others are pushing back, saying it doesn’t match the costs and damage from the opioid crisis. Other drugmakers are exploring whether they might be able to participate in the deal, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. Already, Purdue has entered bankruptcy and the Sackler family sold its share in a ski resort company, according to Bloomberg. 

Aside from the multidistrict litigation, Oklahoma previously sued Johnson & Johnson, Teva and Purdue in state court. Before that trial, Teva and Purdue settled for $270 million and $85 million, respectively. J&J didn’t settle and was ordered to pay $572 million after the trial; the company has appealed.