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Oklahoma's Supreme Court tossed out a landmark $465 million opioid ruling

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has overturned a $465 million opioid ruling against drug-maker Johnson & Johnson, finding that a lower court wrongly interpreted the state's public nuisance law.
Steven Senne
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has overturned a $465 million opioid ruling against drug-maker Johnson & Johnson, finding that a lower court wrongly interpreted the state's public nuisance law.

The Supreme Court of Oklahoma has tossed out a landmark 2019 ruling in an opioid case against Johnson & Johnson worth $465 million.

The 5-to-1 decision found the company can't be held liable for Oklahoma's opioid crisis.

This ruling comes less than two weeks after a state court judge in California sided with drug companies in another major opioid lawsuit.

The rulings raise questions about the legal strategy used by state and local officials, who argue the drug industry should be held liable for fueling the opioid crisis.

In 2019, state District Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of the legal argument that J&J created a "public nuisance" through its marketing of prescription pain pills.

"Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis," Balkman said at the time.

Balkman concluded that J&J should pay nearly a half-billion dollars to help Oklahoma remedy the addiction epidemic.

But Tuesday's ruling by the state supreme court concluded the public nuisance law was never intended to address a big public crisis like the opioid epidemic.

"The court allowed public nuisance claims to address discrete, localized problems, not policy problems," the Oklahoma justices ruled.

"Erasing the traditional limits on nuisance liability leaves Oklahoma's statute impermissibly vague."

In a statement sent to NPR, J&J described the Oklahoma ruling as a vindication.

"Today the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ... rejected the misguided and unprecedented expansion of the public nuisance law as a means to regulate the manufacture, marketing, and sale of products, including the Company's prescription opioid medications," the company said.

Oklahoma's attorney general's office, which sued J&J in the case, didn't respond to NPR's request for comment.

Thousands of opioid lawsuits across the country are based on similar arguments that drug firms created a "public nuisance" by making and distributing large quantities of opioids.

If found liable, companies could be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars.

But in a separate ruling earlier this month in California, a state judge ruled that communities suing the drug industry failed to prove their marketing of opioids created a public nuisance.

"[T]here is no evidence supporting a causal connection between the alleged conduct and ... medically inappropriate prescriptions," ruled California Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson.

These latest rulings represent back-to-back victories for the pharmaceutical industry. But Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, an expert on opioid litigation, said it's too early to conclude that all these cases are likely to fail.

"You don't have a trend when you only have two fairly disparate cases," Tobias said. "It may well turn out to be a valid theory."

There are other state and federal opioid cases underway right now in New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Tobias said the public nuisance argument may still hold up in some courts and jurisdictions.

Many public health experts believe the modern opioid epidemic started in the late 1990s when major drug-makers, distributors and pharmacy chains began selling pain pills aggressively.

Two decades later, local and state governments still face a devastating surge of drug overdoses and deaths. Communities say they desperately need resources to keep people alive.

Officials hope some of that money would come from opioid lawsuits, but decisions like that of the Oklahoma Supreme Court could complicate efforts to win sizable payouts from the drug industry.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.