Oklahoma’s top court overturns $465M opioid award against J&J

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The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit by the state alleging the drugmaker fueled the opioid epidemic through the deceptive marketing of painkillers.

The court on a 5-1 vote ruled that the state’s public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing and sales of prescription opioids and that a trial judge went too far in holding the company liable under it.

“However grave the problem of opioid addition is in Oklahoma, public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for this harm,” Justice James Winchester wrote.

J&J had no immediate comment. A spokesperson for Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decision marked the latest setback for states and local governments pursuing lawsuits seeking to hold drug companies responsible for a drug abuse crisis the US government says led to nearly 500,000 opioid overdose deaths over two decades.

Used syringes on the ground
Opioid-related drug overdoses have led to 500,000 deaths over the last 20 years, according to the US government.
Getty Images

The Oklahoma lawsuit was the first of the more than 3,000 cases against pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug distributors and pharmacies to go to trial.

A similar trial in California pitting several large counties against J&J and three other drugmakers resulted in a judge on Nov. 1 ruling in the companies’ favor and concluding the epidemic could not be considered a public nuisance.

J&J and the three largest US drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmersourceBergen — have been working to finalize a proposed deal to pay up to $26 billion to settle the thousands of cases against them. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter exits a courtroom
Then-Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter exits a courtroom after 2019 proceedings against J&J.
REUTERS

In the Oklahoma case, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman concluded that J&J engaged in misleading marketing about the benefits of painkillers, and that their addictive risks caused a public nuisance in the form of the opioid crisis.

But in Tuesday’s ruling, Winchester said that the state’s public nuisance law only applied to discrete, localized problems involving criminal or property-based conflicts, not policy problems.

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