J&J called 'kingpin' of Oklahoma opioid epidemic. Will a judge agree?

When celebrity chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and José Andrés canceled plans to open restaurants in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., they had to know they were in for a fight.
J&J was called the "kingpin" of Oklahoma's opioid epidemic in the state's closing arguments.

Called a “kingpin” and accused of launching a “multibillion brainwashing campaign” to sell its opioid drugs, Johnson & Johnson has run the gantlet in its court battle with the state of Oklahoma.

But name-calling aside, should J&J be held responsible for the state’s opioid crisis involving a swath of drugmakers? That’s now up to a judge to decide.

Prosecutors and the company presented closing arguments Monday in the first-ever trial in which a drugmaker has faced direct charges of causing and inflaming a statewide opioid epidemic. Oklahoma has already bagged two settlements with Purdue Pharma and Teva for a combined $355 million, but J&J’s verdict could inform the chances of 1,600 consolidated lawsuits against opioid makers in multi-district litigation working its way through federal court in Cleveland.

In the state’s closing argument, attorney Brad Beckworth said J&J oversold the health benefits of its opioid products despite knowing their risk of addiction. That marketing push contributed to Oklahoma’s flood of opioid deaths in recent years, Beckworth said.

“They didn’t get here from a Mexican cartel,” Beckworth said of opioids in the state. “They got here from the pharmaceutical cartel, and the kingpin of them all is Johnson & Johnson.”

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In a second-quarter earnings call with investors Tuesday, J&J CFO Joe Wolk said the facts of the case “simply don’t align with what the state is claiming” and that the company’s products were designed to prevent abuse rather than cause it.

Wolk said J&J agreed that Oklahoma experienced an opioid epidemic, but he downplayed the company’s role in it, saying less than 1% of the state’s opioid Medicare claims came from J&J products.

The case reaching its close came despite J&J’s last-minute push last week to have it thrown out. The drugmaker claimed that the prosecution put the drugmaker in an “untenable situation” with a possible guilty verdict usurping the legislative process and setting health policy. Oklahoma AG Mike Hunter called J&J’s hail Mary an attempt to “cut and run” on the lawsuit in the 11th hour.

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That accusation was one in a long string of tough talk from Hunter, who said J&J not only pushed its own opioid drugs onto the market in Oklahoma but also created a “mutant” poppy strain in 1994 that allowed the company to produce large amounts of opioids. J&J met with Purdue for years to determine supply needs and the companies eventually teamed up, the state said.

Purdue and its billionaire founding family, the Sacklers, have been at the center of hundreds of lawsuits for their role in inflaming the nationwide opioid epidemic. Purdue and the Sacklers previously settled with Oklahoma for $270 million, with most of that directed to a new drug research center.