Court reverses $465mn judgment against Johnson & Johnson over opioid case

A $465 million judgment against pharma giant Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries for allegedly violating a public nuisance law over its sale of huge quantities of opioids has been thrown out by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court.

The five-to-one judgment found that J&J had no liability for the opioid crisis that has devastated Oklahoma’s population, arguing instead that “the district court’s expansion of public nuisance law went too far.”

Oklahoma public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing, and selling of prescription opioids.”

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The Supreme Court judges ruled that extending the nuisance statute to “lawful products” such as FDA-approved pharmaceutical drugs would “create unlimited and unprincipled liability for product manufacturers.”

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman had previously ruled against the pharmaceutical behemoth in August 2019, ordering J&J to pay $465 million to the state to help remediate the drug crisis after it allegedly engaged in misleading marketing about painkillers. However, the judge rejected state attorneys’ suggestions that they should have the option of requesting more money from Johnson & Johnson “if they can show the state’s opioid crisis has not been fully abated.”

That figure had been significantly reduced from the $17 billion Oklahoma authorities were initially seeking, and also rolled back from the $572 million the judge initially claimed was the maximum award permitted under the public nuisance law.

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Oklahoma previously sued Purdue Pharma, the creators of the opioid OxyContin, and Teva Pharmaceuticals. The case against Purdue was settled for $270 million in March 2019, while Teva settled for $85 million in June 2019. As with the J&J lawsuit, both cases concerned claims the drugmakers had disingenuously marketed the painkillers, thus fueling the opioid crisis.

Oklahoma has lost about 6,000 residents to opioid overdoses between 2000 and 2019, according to evidence shown by the state during the Johnson & Johnson suit, and some 400,000 Americans have died of such overdoses nationwide during that period.

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