The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a $465 million opioid ruling against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, finding that a lower court wrongly interpreted the state's public nuisance law in the first case of its kind in the US to go to trial. The ruling was the second blow this month to a government case that used a similar approach to try to hold drugmakers responsible for the national epidemic of opioid abuse. Public nuisance claims are at the heart of some 3,000 lawsuits brought by state and local governments against drugmakers, distribution companies, and pharmacies. The court ruled in a 5-1 decision that District Judge Thad Balkman in 2019 was wrong to find that New Jersey-based J&J and its Belgium-based subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals violated the state’s public nuisance statute, the AP reports.
“The court has allowed public nuisance claims to address discrete, localized problems, not policy problems,” according to the opinion written by Justice James R. Winchester. “J&J had no control of its products through the multiple levels of distribution, including after it sold the opioids to distributors and wholesalers, which were then disbursed to pharmacies, hospitals, and physicians’ offices, and then prescribed by doctors to patients.” The ruling also said the company had no control over how patients then used the products. The high court said that although it wouldn't want to downplay the suffering that thousands of Oklahomans have gone through because of opioids, the question was whether the company’s marketing and sale of opioids created a public nuisance.
“J&J no longer promotes any prescription opioids and has not done so for several years,” since 2015, Winchester wrote. “Even with J&J’s marketing practices these ... medications amounted to less than 1% of all Oklahoma opioid prescriptions.” The court also rejected the state’s appeal to increase the damages award. The state was planning to use the $465 million to fight the opioid crisis, but said that wasn't nearly enough to pay for the harm it has done. The ruling comes a week after a California judge issued a tentative ruling that said local governments had not proven that Johnson & Johnson and other drugmakers used deceptive marketing to inflate prescriptions of their painkillers, leading to a public nuisance. (Click for more on what this could mean for thousands of similar lawsuits still pending.)