Oklahoma Supreme Court overturns historic opioid verdict against Johnson & Johnson

Oklahoma’s Supreme Court overturned a landmark ruling against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday, finding a lower court incorrectly applied the state’s public nuisance law.

The 5-1 decision reversed a district court’s $465 million judgement against Johnson & Johnson for its role in the state’s opioid epidemic. 

The district court’s 2019 decision was the first to hold a drugmaker liable for the epidemic. Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman found Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals liable under Oklahoma’s public nuisance statute for conducting “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns”about prescription opioids that helped lead to thousands of overdose deaths. 

Balkman ordered that J&J pay $465 million to fund one year of the state’s recovery plan, which consisted of the district court appropriating money to 21 government programs for services to combat opioid abuse.

While historic, the amount fell far short of the $17.5 billion state officials requested. 

Tuesday’s ruling from Oklahoma’s highest court could be a blow to the lawsuits brought by more than 3,000 state, tribal and local governments, which argue opioid manufacturers, marketers and distributors created a public nuisance by flooding communities with highly addictive drugs. 

Some of those trials are already underway in a federal court in Cleveland and a state court in New York. A ruling is expected soon in a West Virginia trial. Less than two weeks ago, a judge in California ruled four drug companies were not responsible for the state’s opioid epidemic, and the plaintiffs did not prove the companies caused a public nuisance.

The Hill has reached out to J&J for comment. 

“In reaching this decision, we do not minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of Oklahoma citizens have suffered because of opioids. However grave the problem of opioid addiction is in Oklahoma, public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for this harm,” Justice James Winchester wrote for the majority. 

The justices found that Johnson & Johnson had no control over how patients used its products once they reached the market.

“A product manufacturer’s responsibility is to put a lawful, non-defective product into the market. There is no common law tort duty to monitor how a consumer uses or misuses a product after it is sold,” Winchester wrote.

The justices also said the lower court’s ruling would erase the traditional limits on nuisance liability, making it too vague.

“Without these limitations, businesses have no way to know whether they might face nuisance liability for manufacturing, marketing, or selling products, i.e., will a sugar manufacturer or the fast food industry be liable for obesity, will an alcohol manufacturer be liable for psychological harms, or will a car manufacturer be liable for health hazards from lung disease to dementia or for air pollution,” Winchester wrote.

In the lone dissent, Justice James Edmondson said the Court’s view of public nuisance was too narrow. He suggested he would send the case back to district court to recalculate the damages award. 

Tags Johnson & Johnson Opioid epidemic Opioids

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