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J&J Bolts Higher After Verdict in Oklahoma Opioid Case

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson investors exhaled in relief Tuesday, pushing up the company's shares after an Oklahoma judge imposed a $572 million verdict for the health care giant's role in the nation's opioid crisis.

During the seven week trial, state prosecutors who sought up to $17 billion described J&J as a "kingpin" in an epidemic that's killed more than 400,000 Americans since 2000.

The monetary award announced Monday, and J&J's vow to appeal, reassured investors — at least for now.

"The risk of a loss was already baked into the stock price," noted Erik Gordon, an analyst and professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

The verdict would do little damage to J&J, which recorded profits of $22.3 billion last year.

And it set no precedent outside Oklahoma, said Gordon, as it's based on a novel legal theory that J&J created a public nuisance in marketing its painkillers.

J&J appears to have multiple grounds for appeal, arguing it only had a 1% share of opioid sales in Oklahoma and the country as a whole, and that the state didn't prove it caused a public nuisance, "which traditionally has been applied to resolve property disputes."

J&J subsidiaries sell Duragesic, a pain patch containing the powerful opioid fentanyl, and Nucynta pills. Both carry the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's strongest warnings about risks of addiction, abuse and life-threatening respiratory depression. J&J says it marketed the drugs accordingly and didn't mislead doctors about risks.

Two companies that sold far more opioids — Teva and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin — have already reached settlements to pay Oklahoma $85 million and $270 million, respectively.

Raymond James analyst Jason Bedford told clients that it's likely an appellate court will reduce the $572 million verdict.

Still, J&J says it's been named in more than 2,000 lawsuits brought by state and local governments related to the marketing of opioids.

"This is not a battle. This is a war," said analyst Steve Brozak, president of WBB Securities.

J&J can't take a victory lap until the lawsuits play out or the parties reach settlements, Brozak said.

Shares of J&J rose 2% Tuesday.