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US Judge reduces J&J Opioid fine after mistaking thousands for millions

The miscalculation came when he was assessing various costs to the state to deal with addiction and prevention issues stemming from opioids

Jan Hoffman | NYT  |  New York 


In a mortifying mistake destined to be cited by gleeful math teachers everywhere, an Oklahoma judge acknowledged that he was three decimal places off — mistaking thousands for millions — when he originally calculated the amount Johnson & Johnson should pay for its role in the state’s crisis.

As a result, Judge Thad Balkman announced on Friday a new fine, reduced by about $107 million. The total is now $465 million, down from the $572 million he assessed in August.

The miscalculation came when he was assessing various costs to the state to deal with addiction and prevention issues stemming from In his August order, Judge Balkman listed the yearlyprice to train Oklahoma birthing hospitals to evaluate infants with in their systems at $107,683,000.

The amount was actually $107,683.

He was alerted to the mistake by lawyers for Johnson & Johnson, whose accountants did what students have always been urged to do. They checked his math. They counted zeros.

From the team at NYT Parenting: Get the latest news and guidance for parents. We'll celebrate the little parenting moments that mean a lot — and share stories that matter to families. “That will be the last time I use that calculator,” Judge Balkman said in an October hearing about the dispute.

The judge’s order on Friday is the final decision from last summer’s landmark eight-week trial, the first state trial to determine whether pharmaceutical companies could be held liable for the opioid disaster.

His ruling highlighted two challenges that opioid plaintiffs face: how to calculate the cost of damage wrought by opioids and how to assign blame.

Those questions are at the heart of thousands of opioid lawsuits, brought by cities, counties and states nationwide, against a much broader swath of drug manufacturers, as well as distributors and pharmacy chains. On its face, the revised Johnson & Johnson fine may signal that expectations for a whopping payout may now have to be managed carefully. Even in August, when Judge Balkman arrived at the higher award, the company’s stocks performed well, suggesting that shareholders considered the amount relatively insignificant.

But legal experts cautioned against reading too much into Friday’s order. John C Coffee Jr, director of the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School, said he viewed the Oklahoma case as singular. “It only proved that a less-than-strong case against the one defendant who did not settle because it felt it could win, could still produce a plaintiff’s victory, although a modest one.”

In contrast, two Ohio counties recently wrested settlements worth $320 million from opioid distributors and manufacturers. The next opioid trial, currently set for March 20, will be brought by New York State and Suffolk and Nassau Counties against an array of opioid manufacturers and distributors with deep pockets, including Johnson & Johnson.

© 2019 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sat, November 16 2019. 23:59 IST