by Stephanie Yanovich
For over a century, medical supplier Johnson & Johnson has billed itself as a family friendly household name supplying the familiar comforts found in millions of medicine cabinets. Tylenol, Band-Aids, and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo are just a few of the items produced by the company that conjure soothing images of wounds healed, pain eased, and children cared for. Johnson & Johnson has long embraced its reputation as an organization that consumers can trust, emblazing its company headquarters in New Jersey with a 75-year-old credo which reads:
“We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.”
But this inspiring slogan belies a darker truth. While Johnson & Johnson markets itself as a wholesome, family friendly brand, it is actually a global powerhouse earning tens of billions of dollars annually through the development and manufacture of a vast range of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Over the last two years, it has been hammered by a spate of lawsuits stemming from allegations that its products cause cancer, create physical deformities, and foster deadly addiction. While the company has been ordered to pay out billions in restitution, there is no amount of money that can fully restore the lives of the thousands of victims who have suffered due to its callous disregard for public safety.
[Lawsuits, Payouts, Opioids Crisis: What Happened to Johnson & Johnson? By Edward Helmore, The Guardian, 18.Oct.2019.]
In August of 2019, Judge Thad Balkman of the Cleveland County, Oklahoma District Court made history by concluding that Johnson & Johnson was partially responsible for the state’s devastating opioid epidemic due to the widespread manufacture and marketing of two powerful painkillers by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, one of its subsidiaries. The judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay over $570 million to help fund addiction treatment programs in the region. The ruling was the first time in U.S. history that a pharmaceutical company had been held directly accountable in a trial court for its role in the national opioid crisis – an epidemic that has led to 700,000 overdose deaths over the last 20 years.
[Johnson & Johnson Ordered To Pay $572 Million for Its Role in Oklahoma’s Opioid Crisis, by Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post, 26.Aug.2019.]
During the trial, Oklahoma’s attorney general argued that Johnson & Johnson, along with other leading drug manufacturers, intentionally misled doctors and patients about the safety and efficacy of its opioid-based painkillers as far back as 1999. Despite research showing that opioids are an ineffective long-term solution for chronic pain and present an elevated risk of dependency after extended use, the company marketed its painkillers as a virtual miracle drug that could eradicate severe pain with minimal side effects. The result, per Balkman’s decision, was an “opioid crises [that] has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately.”
[Judge Orders Johnson & Johnson To Pay $570 Million for Role in Oklahoma’s Opioid Epidemic, by German Lopez, Vox, 26.Aug.2019.]
Unlike several other major drug manufacturers involved in the Oklahoma lawsuit, including industry giants Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson refused all settlement offers. The resulting seven-week trial and Judge Balkman’s unprecedented ruling against the company may have influenced its decision to accept a $20.4 million settlement in October 2019 in exchange for removal from a federal lawsuit filed by two Ohio counties. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga and Akron’s Summit counties alleged in the suit that Johnson & Johnson directly contributed to the state suffering from the second highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the nation. While the corporation stipulated in the settlement agreement that it would make “no admission of liability” for its role in Ohio’s staggering rate of opioid related deaths, evidence presented by state’s attorneys demonstrates clear cut culpability.
[In Opioid Settlement, Johnson & Johnson Agrees To Pay Ohio Counties $20 Million, by Scott Neuman, NPR, 2.Oct.19.]
Documents submitted by the plaintiffs in both the Ohio and Oklahoma cases revealed that Johnson & Johnson’s domination of the opioid marketplace dates back to the mid 1990’s, when it worked with a subsidiary called Tasmanian Alkaloids to develop the Norman poppy. This new plant strain contained high amounts of thebaine, which is an opiate used as the base in many brands of painkillers. The company’s cultivation of the Norman poppy proved so successful that it began selling thebaine to other drug manufacturers, creating a thriving industry that used laser focused marketing techniques to sell highly addictive medications to physicians who underestimated the risk of chemical dependency in their patients.
[Inside Johnson & Johnson’s Quiet Domination of the Opioid Marketplace, by Julia Lurie, Mother Jones, 11.June.2019.]
Johnson & Johnson’s blatant disdain for product safety isn’t limited to its opioid based pharmaceuticals. In October 2019, a jury determined that a Maryland plaintiff was entitled to $8 billion in damages from the company after a popular antipsychotic drug that it manufactures caused him to grow permanent breasts. Nicholas Murray was prescribed the drug, known as Risperdal, when he was nine years old to treat sleep disruptions associated with his autism. But after several years of consistent use, Murray developed gynecomastia, a condition in which female breast tissue appears due to a hormonal imbalance. His legal team argued that Johnson & Johnson was aware of the elevated risk of gynecomastia that the drug poised but did not fully convey it to doctors and patients, citing inconsistencies in labeling meant to outline the likelihood of complications. After a jury determined that the company was indeed responsible for Murry’s permanent disfigurement, his legal team lamented in a statement to The Washington Post that Johnson & Johnson is “a company which has lost its way” by choosing “billions over children.”
[He Said an Antipsychotic Drug Caused Him To Grow Breasts. Now, Johnson & Johnson Owes Him $8 Billion, Jury Rules, by Teo Armus, The Washington Post, 9.Oct.2019.]
Unfortunately, prescription drugs are not the only product of Johnson & Johnson’s that has wreaked havoc on the lives of unsuspecting consumers. Its iconic baby powder, as well as a similar item called Shower to Shower, has been at the center of multiple lawsuits filed over the last two years alleging that asbestos-tainted talc used in the products caused cancer after years of repeated use. One of the most recent verdicts against the company came in September 2019, when a jury in New Brunswick, New Jersey determined that four plaintiffs between the ages of 41-65 all developed mesothelioma as a direct result of childhood exposure to asbestos-laced talc products manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. Consequently, the group was awarded nearly $40 million in damages.
Internal company documents obtained by the plaintiff’s legal team show that top level executives were aware of trace amounts of asbestos in their talc products dating back to the 1960’s. And while Johnson & Johnson’s defense team claimed during the trial that there has never been any “appreciable” asbestos in the corporation’s talc based products, the company announced in October 2019 that it was initiating a voluntary recall of a small lot of its baby powder due to suspected asbestos contamination. The recall comes on the heels of a federal investigation opened in July 2019 to determine if Johnson & Johnson should be held criminally liable for withholding information about cancer causing agents in its talc products from customers.
[J&J To Pay $37.2 Million to Group Blaming Powder for Cancers, by Jef Feeley, Bloomberg, 11.Sept.2019.]
While historically large awards to plaintiffs who have been harmed by Johnson & Johnson’s deliberately misleading marketing tactics and outright obfuscation of dangerous product side effects are making headlines, it is important to note that the company has vowed to appeal the decisions for all the cases outlined here. Johnson & Johnson has also prevailed in several high profile court cases, and its army of lawyers has successfully petitioned for the overturn of multi-million dollar awards to plaintiffs. It is no surprise that the company continues to claim legal victories even as it leaves countless victims in its wake. With profits of over $20 billion last year alone, it can easily afford to mount vigorous defenses to avoid payouts and protect its bottom line, even with 50,000 lawsuits over a multitude of products still pending. But the extraordinary damages recently awarded against Johnson & Johnson show that juries are beginning to understand just how dangerous such a powerful company can be when consumer safety takes a backseat to profits.
If you have experienced harmful side effects after using products made by a drug manufacturer, it is imperative that you contact an experienced personal injury lawyer who isn’t afraid to stand up to a big company and demand the compensation you deserve.