A lower court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $465 million in an opioid lawsuit in Oklahoma. File Photo by Justin Lane/EPA-EFE
Nov. 9 (UPI) -- The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the $465 million a judge ordered drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to pay for its role in the state's opioid crisis.
The court ruled 5-1 that District Judge Thad Balkman ruled improperly when he rendered the judgment against the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company in August 2019. The judge said the company and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, created a public nuisance by compromising the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans by marketing opioids.
"Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that's evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome," Balkman said.
The state's high court, though, said the company's actions didn't violate the public nuisance law.
"The court has allowed public nuisance claims to address discrete, localized problems, not policy problems," the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling said.
"J&J had no control of its products through the multiple levels of distribution, including after it sold the opioids to distributors and wholesalers, which were then disbursed to pharmacies, hospitals and physicians' offices, and then prescribed by doctors to patients."
The Oklahoma attorney general's office said it was "disappointed" in Tuesday's ruling.
"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," a statement said.
"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."
Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, released a statement praising the ruling.
"We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected," the company said.
"The company's actions relating to the marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications 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."
Johnson & Johnson has faced thousands of lawsuits for its role in the opioid crisis, which the U.S. government blames for nearly 70,000 deaths in 2020. In July, the company agreed to pay up to $5 billion over the next nine years as part of a wide-ranging settlement with 14 states involving up to 4,000 opioid-related claims.