The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a $465 million judgement against Johnson & Johnson for its role in marketing, selling, and distributing opioids in the state. The 5-1 ruling found that Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman and state prosecutors had incorrectly used public nuisance laws to find Johnson & Johnson culpable in 2019.
"In reaching this decision, we do not minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of Oklahoma citizens have suffered because of opioids," the Oklahoma Supreme Court majority wrote in its ruling. "However grave the problem of opioid addiction is in Oklahoma, public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for this harm." The lone dissenter said the ruling should have been sent back to the lower court.
This is the second blow against the use of public nuisance laws against companies involved in the sale and distribution of opioids; a California judge tentatively ruled last week that several large counties had not proved opioid companies had violated public nuisance laws because they had failed to show that deceptive marketing had increased prescription abuse. Public nuisance laws are being used against opioid companies across the U.S. as states and local governments try to get restitution for an opioid crisis blamed for more than 500,000 deaths in 20 years.
Johnson & Johnson praised the Oklahoma ruling while state Attorney General John O'Connor said he was "disappointed" the Supreme Court had voided "a huge victory for Oklahoma citizens and their families who have been ravaged by opioids." He said his office will explore its options.
Are these two rulings against opioid flooding as a public nuisance "outlier opinions or are they trendsetters?" Elizabeth Burch, a University of Georgia law professor, told The Washington Post. "I think it's too early to be able to tell right now." There's a lot more opioid litigation on the horizon, she added, so "there's a lot that remains to be seen.