Steven Senne / AP
The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a landmark 2019 judgment in a $ 465 million opioid case against Johnson & Johnson.
The 5-to-1 ruling concluded that the company cannot be held responsible for the Oklahoma opioid crisis.
That ruling comes less than two weeks after a California state court sided with drug companies in another major opioid lawsuit.
The rulings raise questions about the legal strategy of state and local officials who argue that the pharmaceutical industry should be held responsible for exacerbating the opioid crisis.
In 2019, state District Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of the legal argument that J&J had created “public harassment” by marketing prescription pain relievers.
“These actions put the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans at risk. In particular, the defendants caused an opioid crisis, ”Balkman said at the time.
Balkman concluded that J&J should pay nearly half a billion dollars to help Oklahoma eradicate the addiction epidemic.
However, Tuesday’s state Supreme Court ruling concluded that the Public Harassment Act was never intended to address a major public crisis like the opioid epidemic.
“The court allowed public harassment claims to address discrete, localized issues, not political issues,” the Oklahoma judges ruled.
“The removal of the traditional boundaries of harassment liability leaves Oklahoma law inadmissibly vague.”
In a statement sent to MediaFrolic, J&J cited the Oklahoma ruling as a justification.
“Today the Oklahoma State Supreme Court … opposed the misguided and unprecedented expansion of the Public Harassment Act as a means of regulating the manufacture, marketing and sale of products, including the company’s prescription opioid drugs,” the company said Companies.
The Oklahoma Attorney General suing J&J in the case did not respond to MediaFrolic’s request for comment.
Thousands of opioid lawsuits across the country are based on similar arguments that drug companies created a “public nuisance” by producing and distributing large quantities of opioids.
If held liable, companies could be charged tens of billions of dollars.
But in a separate judgment earlier this month in California, a state court ruled that communities suing the drug industry could not prove that their opioid marketing was causing a public nuisance.
“[T]there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the alleged behavior and …
These recent rulings mark successive victories for the pharmaceutical industry. But Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, an expert on opioid litigation, said it was too early to conclude that all of these cases were likely to fail.
“You don’t have a trend if you just have two pretty different cases,” said Tobias. “It may well turn out to be a valid theory.”
Additional state and state opioid cases are ongoing in New York, Ohio, and West Virginia. Tobias said the public harassment argument could still stand in some courts and jurisdictions.
Many public health experts believe that the modern opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s when large drug manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains began aggressively selling pain relievers.
Two decades later, local and state governments are still facing a devastating spate of overdoses and deaths. Churches say they urgently need resources to keep people alive.
Officials hope some of that money would come from opioid lawsuits, but rulings like that of the Oklahoma Supreme Court could hamper efforts to get sizeable payouts from the pharmaceutical industry.