Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson was spared from a $465 million judgment on Tuesday for its purported role in facilitating Oklahoma’s ongoing, lethal opioid epidemic.
The state’s Supreme Court struck down a lower court’s 2019 decision, which held the company liable for exacerbating the epidemic’s impact. Tuesday’s 5-1 decision found the New Jersey-based company should not have been held accountable for the epidemic under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law.
“We hold the opioid manufacturer’s actions did not create a public nuisance. The district court erred in extending the public nuisance statute to the manufacturing, marketing, and selling of prescription opioids,” Justice James Winchester wrote for the majority.
The lone dissenter, Justice James Edmondson, argued that the majority’s “view of public nuisance is too narrow.” Edmondson called for the damages against J&J to be recalculated.
Tuesday’s decision marked the second time this month that a state court ruled against prosecutors attempting to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for promoting highly addictive prescription opioids, which have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in recent years.
It’s a sign of what is possibly to come, as public nuisance claims are central to many of the more than 3,000 lawsuits filed by state and local governments against pharmaceutical companies, drugmakers and distributors.
And while Johnson & Johnson was spared from liability and damages by Oklahoma’s highest court on Tuesday, the state’s citizens continue to face the deadly effects of the epidemic that the company was alleged to have profited and gained from.
In Oklahoma, an estimated 43% of drug overdose deaths involved opioids in 2018, totaling more than 308 fatalities, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That number is likely far higher in 2021, as death tolls from opioids have worsened dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2020, the largest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a statement following the ruling, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor pledged to continue to fight on behalf of those impacted by the epidemic in the state.
“We are still pursuing our other pending claims against opioid distributors who have flooded our communities with these highly addictive drugs for decades. Oklahomans deserve nothing less,” O’Connor said.
Johnson & Johnson celebrated the ruling while expressing “deep sympathy” for those affected by the epidemic.
“Today, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court appropriately and categorically 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 in the statement.