OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a $ 465 million opioid ruling against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, finding that a lower court misinterpreted state disorderly law in the first such case in USA, which was to appear before the court. …
The ruling was the second blow this month on a government case that took a similar approach to try to hold drug manufacturers accountable for the nation’s opioid abuse epidemic. Community harm claims are at the heart of about 3,000 state and local lawsuits against drug manufacturers, distribution companies, and pharmacies, but it is unclear if legal theory is in a quandary with pending review lines. there are still so many things to do.
The court ruled 5-1 that District Judge Thad Bulkman was wrong in 2019 in finding that New Jersey-based J&J and its Belgian subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals violated state disorderly conduct law.
“The court granted the lawsuits for violation of public order to address specific local issues, and not political issues,” – says the conclusion, written by Judge James R. Winchester.
“J&J did not control its products at several distribution levels, including after it sold opioids to distributors and wholesalers, which were then distributed to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices, and then prescribed by doctors to patients.” The ruling also stated that the company had no control over how patients then used the products.
The High Court said that while it would not want to play down the suffering that thousands of Oklahoma residents have endured because of the opioids, the question was whether the marketing and sale of opioids for the company created a public inconvenience.
“J&J no longer promotes any prescription opioids, and it hasn’t done so in years,” Winchester wrote. “Even with J&J’s marketing practices, these … drugs accounted for less than 1% of all opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma.”
Government statistics show that from 2007 to 2017, more than 4,600 people in Oklahoma died from overdoses of opioids of all kinds, including prescription pain relievers and illicit varieties such as heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
Nationally, since 2000, opioids have caused more than 500,000 deaths.
The court also dismissed the state’s appeal for an increase in compensation for damages. The state planned to spend $ 465 million to combat the opioid crisis, but said that was not enough to compensate for the damage.
The ruling came a week after a California judge issued a preliminary ruling saying local governments had failed to prove Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers were using deceptive marketing to inflate prescriptions for their painkillers, resulting in public inconvenience.
While the Oklahoma lawsuit filed by former state attorney general Mike Hunter was the first of thousands of such lawsuits to go to court, the state’s Supreme Court decision does not necessarily mean death for the rest.
Elizabeth Birch, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law who oversees the opioid trial, said other judges and juries might not decide their cases in the same way.
“The question remains whether they are outliers,” she said. “I don’t think we have enough consensus on public disorder law, and where it goes and how it works.”
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, noted that the state’s public disorder laws differ and that California’s decision could be changed by a higher court.
“The inconvenience law varies from state to state, especially in this context because it is so relevant,” he said. “We haven’t seen enough cases to sort it out and say if it’s a viable theory or not.”
The Oklahoma case was the first of its kind to go to trial, and the California case was the only one to have received a verdict, as most cases were settled before or during the trial. But other opioid trials based on public disorder law are underway in front of jury in Cleveland federal and New York state courts. And a judgment is expected soon in West Virginia.
Oklahoma’s current attorney general, John O’Connor, said he was disappointed with the decision, which reversed a “huge victory” for those suffering from opioid abuse.
“Our staff will be exploring options,” O’Connor said in a statement. “We are still pending our other pending claims against opioid distributors who have flooded our communities with these highly addictive drugs for decades.”
The state has also filed a lawsuit against three opioid distribution companies.
Johnson & Johnson said in a statement that the ruling appropriately reversed a “flawed and unprecedented” attempt to expand public disorder laws.
“We recognize that the opioid crisis is an extremely complex public health issue, and we deeply sympathize with everyone affected,” said the drug manufacturer. “The company’s actions to market and promote these important prescription pain relievers have been correct and responsible.”
Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $ 5 billion to settle similar US lawsuits. In a related deal, the three largest national drug distribution companies also agreed to a $ 21 billion long-term settlement. Companies must decide for themselves whether to move on when they see how many government agencies will join. All companies found that enough states had joined them to interview local governments.
Birch said new regulations in California and Oklahoma could push some governments that were on the verge of waiting to join, rather than risk losing their claims in court.
Two other well-known opioid manufacturers, Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt, achieved nationwide bankruptcy settlements.
Disagreeing, Judge James E. Edmondson said he would uphold the judgment but return the case to the District Court to recalculate damages.
The state asked to increase the amount of the premium to $ 9.3 billion.
Associated Press reporter Jeff Mulvihill of Cherry Hill, NJ contributed to this report.