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Oklahoma Supreme Court overturns $465M opioid ruling against J&J

Judge Thad Balkman ruled against Johnson & Johnson on Aug. 26 after Oklahoma sued the company. The judge ordered the drugmaker to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis, though Johnson & Johnson has appealed.
Sue Ogrocki
Judge Thad Balkman ruled against Johnson & Johnson on Aug. 26, 2019, after Oklahoma sued the company. The judge ordered the drugmaker to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for its role in the opioid crisis.

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a $465 million opioid ruling against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, finding that a lower court wrongly interpreted the state’s public nuisance law.

The court ruled in a 5-1 decision that District Judge Thad Balkman in 2019 was wrong to find that New Jersey-based J&J and its Belgium-based subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals violated the state’s public nuisance statute.

“The court has allowed public nuisance claims to address discrete, localized problems, not policy problems,” according to the opinion written by Justice James R. Winchester.

The high court said the question is whether the company’s marketing and sale of opioids created a public nuisance, but that it was not minimizing the suffering of thousands of Oklahomans because of opioids.

“J&J no longer promotes any prescription opioids and has not done so for several years,” since 2015, Winchester wrote. “Even with J&J’s marketing practices these ... medications amounted to less than 1% of all Oklahoma opioid prescriptions.”

From 2007 to 2017, more than 4,600 people in Oklahoma died from opioid overdoses, state statistics show.

The court also rejected the state’s appeal to increase the damage award.

The ruling comes a week after a California judge issued a tentative ruling that said local governments had not proven that Johnson & Johnson used deceptive marketing to inflate prescriptions of their painkillers, leading to a public nuisance.

The Oklahoma lawsuit by former state Attorney General Mike Hunter was the first of thousands of similar lawsuits to go to trial.

Spokespeople for the state’s current attorney general, John O’Connor, and for J&J did not immediately respond to a requests for comment.

In dissent, Justice James E. Edmondson said he would uphold the verdict but send the case back to district court to recalculate the damages award.

The state had asked that the award be increased to $9.3 billion.