Johnson & Johnson scores reversal of landmark $465M opioid ruling in Oklahoma

For years, Johnson & Johnson has been battling lawsuits alleging it played a role in creating the nationwide opioid epidemic. On Tuesday, just days after a high-profile trial win, the company scored major relief in appeals in a separate case.

Oklahoma's Supreme Court overturned a lower court's $465 million verdict that concluded J&J's opioid marketing created a public nuisance in the state. In the 5-1 Oklahoma Supreme Court vote, justices found that the state's public nuisance law doesn't apply to the allegations presented in the lawsuit from Oklahoma's former attorney general, Mike Hunter.

"The central focus of the state's complaints is that J&J was or should have been aware and that J&J failed to warn of the dangers associated with opioid abuse and addiction in promoting and marketing its opioid products," Justice James Winchester wrote in the opinion. "This classic articulation of tort law duties—to warn of or to make safe—sounds in product-related liability."

Nuisance law and product-related liability are "two distinct causes of action, each with boundaries that are not intended to overlap," Justice Winchester wrote.

In addition, the justices wrote that the lower court went "too far" by "creating and funding government programs designed to address social and health issues." Policymaking for complex problems should be left for the legislative and executive branches of government, the justices wrote.

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Back in 2019, Judge Thad Balkman in Oklahoma's Cleveland County ordered J&J to pay $572 million in a landmark opioid ruling. Later, he reduced the award to $465 million because of a miscalculation he had previously made. The money was to be directed toward abatement costs for the epidemic.

Since then, J&J has been busy attempting to resolve the complex web of nationwide opioid litigation. J&J and others face thousands of lawsuits from states, cities, counties and other organizations, and J&J is moving forward with a $26 billion nationwide settlement in conjunction with the three leading drug distributors, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. As part of that deal, J&J has said it'll pay $5 billion in settlement costs, but the deal has not been finalized.

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For J&J, the appeals decision marks a second win in as many weeks. After a virtual trial in California, the company and others recently prevailed in a suit bought by three major counties and the City of Oakland.