Wave of hip implant, opioid, talc suits tarnish a famed ‘family’ brand

jj-300x112If consumers ever considered Johnson and Johnson just to be a family friendly health brand, the conglomerate’s legal challenges on three fronts—with problematic medical devices and drugs—may disabuse them of warm and fuzzy views.

As Bloomberg News Service reported, J&J will pay $1 billion to try to extricate itself from 95% of 6,000 lawsuits against it over defective metal-on-metal hip implants that not only caused patients great pain but also had to be surgically removed and replaced. The company still must resolve thousands of suits with patients who haven’t had replacement operations or whose implants were only partially metal.

J&J has battled over its Pinnacle implant from its DePuy unit for at least four years, losing sizable cases in Texas to patients who convinced judges and juries that the medical device maker had misled them about their artificial hips’ durability and risks, including assertions that it caused metal poisoning.

The Texas cases, Bloomberg said, eventually involved more than $1.5 billion that J&J was ordered to pay to patients harmed by its implant, though some judgements were cut or thrown out on appeal.

The company declined to comment on reports of its decisions on its hip devices, which were pulled earlier from the market. J&J may have sought to settle as many of these cases now, experts said, because it has other sizable legal challenges with which to deal.

It will be the defendant in a televised case in Oklahoma, in which the state asserts J&J played a key role in creating the nationwide opioid crisis that has become a leading killer of Americans 55 and younger. Oklahoma officials had focused their opioid case on the Sackler family and their firm Purdue, maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin. The family and Purdue, before any trial could get underway, agreed to pay the state $270 million to resolve claims they had used dubious information, aggressive marketing, and tactics like flooding the state with pills to push excessive sales of its powerful painkiller OxyContin.

Oklahoma’s case against J&J, as opposed to its suit with Purdue, may be more difficult, the Washington Post reported. That’s because doctors wrote far fewer prescriptions for J&J opioids for Oklahomans, who also were not inundated with them, as they were with OxyContin. Further, the state is pursuing J&J with product injury-nuisance claims because its subsidiaries provided components used to make powerful and addictive painkillers, not necessarily for selling or providing the drugs.

A U.S. judge in Ohio is trying to negotiate a “global” resolution of the many federal opioid suits among drug makers, states, counties, cities, Indian tribes, individuals, and others. Analysts have said the judge may have decided to wave on Oklahoma’s cases, hoping the state suits will show all the parties involved the costs and risks in long, complex, and uncertain litigation, as opposed to striking a grand bargain akin to what Big Tobacco reached decades ago to settle cases over cigarettes’ proven damages.

Even as it girds for opioid suits, J&J is wrangling with thousands of suits over its talc products, notably its baby powder, and whether they may have been tainted with asbestos and contributed to longtime users’ cancers. The company has lost, big time, in some of the cases, one of which included a $4.69 billion jury decision in favor of 22 women. But J&J also has won talc suits and has gotten judgments cut or reversed on appeal.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the injury that can be inflicted on them by defective and dangerous products and the damage they sustain  when given dangerous drugs. It’s a reality of the global economy that scale matters so much to corporations now. Bigger seems always to be better for them. But conglomeration carries risks, too, especially for businesses most important component—their customers.

As the Washington Post noted in its news article on J&J’s impending opioid case, the company long has held itself up as great corporate citizen with special concern for the health and wellness of women, infants, and families. As the firm proclaims on its website:

At Johnson & Johnson, we believe good health is the foundation of vibrant lives, thriving communities and forward progress. That’s why for more than 130 years, we have aimed to keep people well at every age and every stage of life. Today, as the world’s largest and most broadly based health care company, we are committed to using our reach and size for good. We strive to improve access and affordability, create healthier communities, and put a healthy mind, body and environment within reach of everyone, everywhere.

Nice words, J&J, but how well is that message, as opposed to profit seeking, resonating with your 130,000 employees? And what’s the picture that U.S. consumers should walk away with when your company is involved in thousands of lawsuits? That’s not such a wholesome picture. Caveat emptor, patient-consumers.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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