State high court overturns J&J opioid verdict

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.

“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.

“J&J no longer promotes any prescription opioids and has not done so for several years,” Winchester wrote. “Even with J&J’s marketing practices these … medications amounted to less than 1% of all Oklahoma opioid prescriptions.”

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

Impact: It’s murky. 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. But every judge, and jury, is different and may not follow the same logic.