OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a 2019 decision that ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $465 million stemming from opioid addiction and overdose deaths in the state.
The original ruling by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman in August 2019 held Johnson & Johnson liable under the state’s public nuisance lawsuit. Balkman had ruled that Johnson & Johnson contributed to addiction and overdose deaths in Oklahoma by underselling the dangers of opioid use and the risk of addiction from long-term use.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled 5-1 that Balkman “erred in extending the public nuisance statute” to Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing, marketing and sale of the painkillers, while acknowledging the persistence of drug addiction and overdose deaths in Oklahoma. The court argued the state’s allegations “do not fit within Oklahoma nuisance statutes” as the justices interpreted them — to be applied to unlawful conduct that injures, annoys or endangers the comfort, health, peace or safety of others, the ruling states.
Balkman said Tuesday he would not comment on the Supreme Court’s decision.
Opioid-related deaths in Oklahoma increased in the early 2000s and plateaued around 2007 before declining, according to data cited in the ruling. In 2014, Oklahoma was still in the top half of states reporting opioid deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed a lawsuit in 2017 against Johnson & Johnson, arguing the company, as well as other defendants including Purdue Pharma and Actavis, oversold the drugs’ benefits and downplayed their addictive potential.
Tuesday’s ruling noted Johnson & Johnson stopped promoting some of its products as early as 2007, and stopped promoting Schedule II-branded products by 2015. The company had also sold only 3% of all prescription opioids statewide — other defendants in the suit, including Purdue Pharma and Actavis, account for 97% of prescription opioid sales in Oklahoma, the new ruling argued.
“Improper use of prescription opioids led to many of these deaths; few deaths occurred when individuals used pharmaceutical opioids as prescribed,” the Tuesday ruling reads.
The Supreme Court argued the state’s suit held Johnson & Johnson accountable for purported harms done by all opioid manufacturers in the state, not just those manufactured and sold by the company. While the state included other opioid manufacturers in its original suit, companies such as Purdue Pharma settled with the state and avoided going to trial.
“The amount of the judgment against J&J was not based on J&J’s percentage of prescription opioids sold,” the new ruling reads.
Justices in Tuesday’s ruling argued that the manufacture and distribution of products rarely violate public rights, manufacturers don’t usually control their products once they’re sold and a manufacturer could, in theory, be constantly liable for its products.
In a statement released Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson argued its actions were “appropriate and responsible.”
“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 statement reads.
The company said it recognizes the rise in opioid addiction and deaths over the last two decades is “a tremendously complex public health issue,” and that it has “deep sympathy for everyone affected.”
American Tort Reform Association President Tiger Joyce said the Tuesday decision “will rein in the expanse of public nuisance law’s applicability and set a precedent for other states that may look for additional litigation targets to address public health problems.”