Oklahoma Supreme Court Tosses $465 Million Opioid Ruling Against J&J

November 9, 2021

The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a ruling that drugmaker Johnson & Johnson must pay the state $465 million for its role in the opioid epidemic, determining that Oklahoma’s public nuisance law does not extend to manufacturing, marketing and sales of prescription opioids.

The court voted 5-1 that Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman erred in a 2019 verdict that held J&J and its Belgian subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals liable for deceptively marketing painkillers.

“In reaching this decision, we do not minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of Oklahoma citizens have suffered because of opioids,” wrote Justice James R. Winchester. “However grave the problem of opioid addiction is in Oklahoma, public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for this harm.”

The Oklahoma lawsuit brought by former state Attorney General Mike Hunter was the first to reach trial out of more than 3,300 lawsuits filed by municipalities against pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug distributors and pharmacies over the opioid crisis.

More than 4,600 people in Oklahoma died due to opioid overdoses from 2007-2017, according to the state.

In its decision, the court said that J&J does not have control of its product once it is sold, nor the does company have control over the laws that govern the disbursement of its prescription opioids.

“To expand public nuisance to cover a manufacturer’s production and sale of a product would cause the manufacturer to be responsible for products it did not produce,” wrote Winchester. “We refuse to expand Oklahoma’s nuisance law so greatly.”

Current Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said his staff is exploring options after the decision.

“We are still pursuing our other pending claims against opioid distributors who have flooded our communities with these highly addictive drugs for decades,” O’Connor said in a statement.

The Oklahoma ruling comes a week after a California judge ruled that counties in the state had not produced enough evidence that J&J and other drugmakers used deceptive marketing to cause the opioid epidemic.

In Ohio, four large pharmacy chains are under trial for alleged oversight leading to excessive amounts of opioid pills in Lake and Trumbull Counties. And last month, J&J reached a $290 million settlement agreement with the state of Texas to resolve opioid-related claims.