$465M Verdict In Opioid Epidemic Lawsuit Overturned by Oklahoma Supreme Court

Second court to shoot down the "public nuisance" argument in less than a week may impact opioid settlement negotiations in thousands lawsuits pending nationwide

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has overturned a $465 million opioid verdict against Johnson & Johnson, which was brought under the state’s public nuisance law, finding that the law was improperly applied to the pharmaceutical manufacturer.

The original verdict was handed down against Johnson & Johnson following a six-week trial in Oklahoma by Judge Thad Balkman in August 2019. It was the first of a number of lawsuits brought by states and municipalities against drug manufacturers, blaming them for the deadly opioid drug abuse crisis which has been linked to the deaths of half a million people in the U.S. since the late 1990s.

In 2013, opioid overdoses accounted for 3,100 deaths, but that number has continued to rise sharply each year. Federal health officials now warn that opioids account for nearly 70% of all drug overdoses, and Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than from a car crash.

A recent report revealed that 2020 had the highest number of U.S. drug overdose deaths in recorded history, largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 2019 bench trial in Oklahoma, Judge Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson aggressively overstated the benefits of opioid painkillers while downplaying the risks, and thus violated the state’s public nuisance laws. Ultimately, Johnson and Johnson was ordered to pay the state $465 million in damages.

However, on November 9, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 5-1 that Judge Balkman’s interpretation of the law was wrong and overturned the decision.

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

The ruling echoes a bench decision by a California judge earlier this month, who also rejected a public nuisance argument which was the basis of a lawsuit brought by several California communities against Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

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The public nuisance argument has been used in several cases to get around the many ways drug manufacturers tried to isolate themselves from being held liable for the side effects of their products and aggressive marketing strategies. However, the public nuisance laws, and how they are interpreted, differ from state to state, making it difficult to read into the two recent decisions any wider effect on opioid crisis litigation.

Some of the cases brought by states have been resolved through massive opioid settlement agreements. But legal experts warn these latest two decisions might lead to pharmaceutical companies digging in their heels, making future settlements harder to obtain.

While this trial was held at the state level, there are currently more than 2,000 opioid addiction lawsuits filed in the federal court system, each seeking damages from various manufacturers and distributors of the powerful narcotic medications over addiction and abuse problems that have plagued the nation in the recent years.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in the claims, the U.S. JPML established centralized proceedings for the opioid cases last year, consolidating the claims before U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster in the Northern District of Ohio, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.

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