WEDNESDAY, Nov. 10, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- A previous court ruling that ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay Oklahoma $465 million for the company's role in the opioid epidemic was tossed out by the state's highest court on Tuesday.
In a 5-1 vote, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected the state's argument that Johnson & Johnson violated "public nuisance" laws by overstating the benefits of its prescription opioid painkillers and minimizing the dangers, The New York Times reported.
"Oklahoma public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing and selling of prescription opioids," the judges wrote in Tuesday's majority opinion, the Times reported. The judges also gave weight to the company's response that it had not promoted its products in recent years and had sold off one of its product lines in 2015. The judges decided that opioid manufacturers could not be held "perpetually liable" for their products.
It's not clear how the decision to overturn the 2019 ruling will affect similar cases nationwide, since most public nuisance laws are state-specific. A similar opinion by a California state judge was issued on Nov. 1, and the two rulings together could suggest that plaintiffs suing opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers could be rebuffed in future cases.
Federal data shows the abuse of opioids has contributed to the deaths of some 500,000 Americans since the late 1990s, and the toll has worsened during the pandemic, the Times said.
The decision is disappointing but the state is "still pursuing our other pending claims against opioid distributors who have flooded our communities with these highly addictive drugs for decades," Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor told the Times.
Teva, Purdue and other opioid manufacturers that were sued by Oklahoma settled their cases before the trial against Johnson & Johnson began in May 2019, and this new decision does not affect those agreements.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said the Oklahoma State Supreme Court decision shows that the company's "marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible and did not cause a public nuisance."
Elizabeth Burch, a law professor at the University of Georgia, told the Times that the Oklahoma and California decisions may not predict the fate of other cases winding their way through courts. But the rulings could influence plaintiffs' response to Johnson & Johnson's major national settlement offer in July, when it proposed to pay $5 billion over nine years to resolve all opioid litigation against it.
"If I was a plaintiff that was on the fence about whether to enter the J&J settlement, this ruling might push me closer to settling, if I was risk-averse," Burch said.
Visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse for more on opioids.