On November 9th, 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed a district court decision that ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $465 million to the state for its role in the opioid crisis.
In the justices’ decision filed Tuesday, they wrote that the district court “erred” by holding Johnson & Johnson liable under the state’s public nuisance statute for its opioid prescription marketing campaign.
“We hold 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,” Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice James Winchester wrote in his opinion.
The opinion states that the manufacture and distribution of products “rarely causes a violation of a public right” and that a manufacturer generally does not have control over a product once its sold, and that if the public nuisance law were allowed to be used to hold a company liable for its products “a manufacturer could be held perpetually liable.”
“In reaching this decision, we do not minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of Oklahoma citizens have suffered because of opioids,” the opinion states. “However grave the problem of opioid addiction is in Oklahoma, public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for this harm.”
In a statement to CNN, Johnson & Johnson called its actions relating to the marketing and promotion of the prescription pain medications “appropriate and responsible.”
“We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected,” the statement said. “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.”
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said he was “disappointed” by the state supreme court’s decision.
“The Judgment holding Johnson & Johnson accountable for their deceptive actions was a huge victory for Oklahoma citizens and their families who have been ravaged by opioids,” O’Connor said in a statement to CNN. “Our staff will be exploring options. 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.”
One state supreme court judge wrote in a dissenting opinion that the district court’s decision should be reversed and the matter sent back to the court for a “correct” determination of damages.