This week’s ruling by an Oklahoma judge that Johnson & Johnson deceptively marketed its opioid painkillers and should pay $572 million in fines has given optimism to communities across the country that are seeking similar legal recourse from companies that they say contributed to the nation’s ongoing crisis of drug addiction and overdoses.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey — who declined to comment Tuesday — has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over its alleged role in deceptively marketing opioid painkillers to Maine doctors.
At the same time, Bangor, Portland, Lewiston, Waterville and several Maine counties are among roughly 2,000 local governments that have signed onto a separate federal lawsuit in Ohio against the makers, distributors and prescribers of opioid painkillers, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson.
A federal judge in Cleveland is due to start hearing arguments from two of those local governments, Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, in a trial starting Oct. 21.
Their lawsuit will rely, in part, on the argument that the defendants violated public nuisance laws by contributing to a major public health problem that could take decades to address.
After prescription painkillers became popular in the early 2000s, authorities eventually cracked down on their use, and they were replaced on the black market by heroin and strong synthetic opioids that are more likely to cause overdoses.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the crisis has killed more than 400,000 people across the country since 2000, including 47,000 in both 2017 and last year.
Attorneys in the Ohio lawsuit did not respond to requests for comment from the BDN but said in a statement that they were encouraged by the results from Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, which relied on a similar legal strategy to theirs, according to the New York Times.
“While public nuisance laws differ in every state, this decision is a critical step forward,” they said.
As part of Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, it also reached settlements with Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals. The companies agreed to pay the state $270 million and $80 million, respectively.
Maine’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, filed in Kennebec County Superior Court in June, alleges violations of the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, not a public nuisance law violation.
One legal expert who has followed the case, Elizabeth C. Burch at the University of Georgia School of Law, cautioned against giving the Oklahoma decision too much weight when expecting what will come of those other lawsuits. She noted that the Oklahoma ruling is likely to be appealed and that a North Dakota judge previously threw out a similar state lawsuit.
“Sure, we’ll see analogies, particularly to the public nuisance law, but nothing about the Oklahoma decision will be controlling,” Burch said.
Even so, at least one Maine official, Bangor public health director Patty Hamilton, said she found the outcome of the Oklahoma lawsuit encouraging.
“You reflect on what’s going on across the nation, wondering where that’s going to lead us,” Hamilton said. “My reaction is that it’s nice to see there’s been some recognition from the courts about the long-term implications of the behaviors of some of these companies.”