On Nov 9, Johnson & Johnson received a reprieve after the Supreme Court of Oklahoma voided a $465 million verdict against the company. The case, brought by the Oklahoma state attorney general, accused J&J of creating a public nuisance with their opioid marketing that contributed to the opioid crisis, according to the New York Times.
In a 5-1 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the public nuisance case presented by the Oklahoma state attorneys general was insufficient to merit the verdict awarded. In their decision, the court wrote, “Oklahoma public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing and selling of prescription opioids.” This dismissal mirrors a similar decision in California on Nov 1.
The state’s lawsuit was initially filed in 2019, accusing J&J of creating a public health nuisance by marketing their opioids as safer than they actually were, in addition to intentionally downplaying the dangers. This lawsuit was the first state opioid lawsuit against J&J to go to trial.
The key argument that the Oklahoma state attorneys general put forth to defend their public nuisance claims was that health is a public right. By endangering public health through their marketing of opioids, J&J jeopardized that right and created a public nuisance.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court was unconvinced of the Oklahoma attorney general’s rationale. In their ruling, the judges noted that public nuisance law usually referred to the violation of public rights to clean water, air or roads. The Oklahoma Supreme Court called the attorneys general’s strategy a “novel theory” that was more closely related to products liability law than public nuisance charges.
While advocates are disappointed with this outcome, all is not lost. The New York Times notes that “because most public nuisance laws are state-specific, it is unclear how much impact the Oklahoma decision could ultimately have on cases elsewhere.”