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Judge Makes $107 Million Math Error In Oklahoma's Opioid Verdict

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Chris Landsberger / The Oklahoman
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Judge Thad Balkman listens to statements from the defense during the hearing to settle the Journal Entry of Judgment for opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

At a hearing Tuesday, Oklahoma Judge Thad Balkman acknowledged he made a $107 million math error in his verdict on the state’s opioid case. The judge says he’ll correct the error in an upcoming ruling.

In August, Judge Balkman found Johnson & Johnson liable for helping fuel the state’s opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay $572 million to help meet health and addiction costs incurred by the state. The amount was based on what state lawyers claimed one year of abating the opioid crisis in Oklahoma would cost. 

But in a motion filed with the court, lawyers for Johnson & Johnson pointed out that the judge inadvertently added three zeros in one portion of the calculation. They said one category, which would fund neonatal abstinence syndrome treatment evaluation standards, should be $107,600 not the $107.6 million in the judge’s August decision. At a hearing Tuesday, the judge agreed.

“That’s the last time I use that calculator,” the judge joked at the end of the hearing. 

His decision could mean the judgment amount will be cut, but the total amount that Johnson & Johnson will ultimately have to pay Oklahoma is unclear. 

Attorneys for the drug giant also asked the court to give them credit for the state’s settlements with other drug companies before trial, and reduce the judgment against them by another $355 million. 

Calling it the judge’s “duty and responsibility,” attorneys for the state argued that the judge should maintain jurisdiction over the case and annually review whether the public nuisance has been resolved. 

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Credit Chris Landsberger / The Oklahoman
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State’s attorney Michael Burrage speaks during the hearing to settle the Journal Entry of Judgment for opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

State lawyer Michael Burrage told the court “in this case, the court has found that there is a nuisance, to do whatever is necessary…what is the harm, because of this tragedy, what is the harm in you looking at it on an annual basis?”

That proposed process could result in additional payments to Oklahoma from Johnson & Johnson that could be in the billions of dollars.

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Credit Chris Landsberger / The Oklahoman
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Defense attorney Sabrina Strong speaks to the court during the hearing to settle the Journal Entry of Judgment for opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

Sabrina Strong, a lawyer representing the company, said that a yearly plan was never brought up during the trial and that doing so would violate state law. 

Judge Balkman will rule on the legal objections to his verdict at a later date. 

Meanwhile, the Federal government is trying to claw back a portion of Oklahoma’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which could further decrease the amount the state ultimately receives. 

A new study by the Society of Actuaries estimates that the opioid epidemic has cost the U.S. economy about $631 billion over the past four years. The study finds that the unrealized lifetime earnings of those who died prematurely due to drug overdoses and health care costs associated with opioid use were the biggest drivers of the economic drag created by the opioid crisis.

Jackie Fortiér worked for StateImpact Oklahoma from November 2017 to January 2020, reporting on a variety of topics and heading up its health reporting initiative. She has many journalism awards to her name during her years of multi-media reporting in Colorado, and was part of a team recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists with a Sigma Delta Chi award for excellence in breaking news reporting in 2013.
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