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Johnson & Johnson is the latest drug company to settle lawsuits tied to the nation's deadly opioid epidemic. If the deal announced last night is approved by a federal court, the firm will pay two counties in Ohio more than $20 million. But as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, Johnson & Johnson has not admitted wrongdoing.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Over the last year, the opioid epidemic emerged as a major problem for Johnson & Johnson, one of America's biggest drug makers. During a Senate hearing earlier this year, the head of the firm's pharmaceutical division, Jennifer Taubert, drew fire for Johnson & Johnson's role boosting opioid consumption. Taubert denied the company did anything improper.
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JENNIFER TAUBERT: Everything that I have seen leads me to conclusively believe that everything that we have done with our products when we promoted opioid products, which we stopped marketing a long time ago, was very appropriate and responsible.
MANN: But in August, a judge in Oklahoma disagreed, ruling against Johnson & Johnson in awarding that state $572 million in opioid-related damages. Johnson & Johnson is appealing that decision. But yesterday, the firm moved to settle another lawsuit brought by Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio. Johnson & Johnson acknowledged in a statement it wanted to avoid the uncertainty of another trial.
Alexandra Lahav teaches at the University of Connecticut Law School and follows opioid litigation closely. She says this $20 million deal suggests Johnson & Johnson may be looking for a broader settlement of the roughly 2,000 opioid lawsuits filed by state and local governments.
ALEXANDRA LAHAV: I anticipate that this is part of a larger strategy to settle the entire litigation and that they're in talks to do that now and that it would - it made more sense to focus on those talks than to focus on a trial.
MANN: In this deal, Johnson & Johnson isn't required to acknowledge any wrongdoing or liability. Three other drug companies have already reached similar settlements and will also avoid next month's trial. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, took the additional step of declaring bankruptcy. The federal trial is still expected to go forward in a Cleveland, Ohio, courtroom with much of the attention focused now not on drugmakers but on companies including McKesson and Cardinal Health that shipped and distributed billions of opioid medications and on Walgreens, one of the pharmacy chains that sold pills to consumers. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.