Oklahoma Supreme Court throws out opioid ruling against Johnson & Johnson This ruling and a recent state court in California raise questions about thousands of opioid lawsuits filed against Big Pharma.

Oklahoma's Supreme Court tossed out a landmark $465 million opioid ruling

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Oklahoma state Supreme Court has tossed out a landmark ruling today. Johnson & Johnson is no longer on the hook for nearly half a billion dollars for its alleged role in Oklahoma's opioid epidemic. That decision comes less than two weeks after a state court judge in California sided with drug companies in another major opioid lawsuit. Well, these rulings raise questions about the legal strategy used by state and local officials to hold the drug industry accountable for the opioid crisis. And we're going to read some of those questions with NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So start in Oklahoma, where the state Supreme Court just overturned what had been seen as this big landmark opioid win. How come?

MANN: Well, this Oklahoma case was a big deal, you know, because it was the first big win for a state government in one of these opioid cases. It meant $465 million to help fund drug treatment and research in the state. And this ruling seemed to validate the legal framework for a lot of these other opioid lawsuits around the country. Here's Judge Thad Balkman speaking in 2019, back when he ruled J&J was liable for part of Oklahoma's opioid crisis.

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THAD BALKMAN: Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis.

MANN: But, Mary Louise, at the heart of this case was a legal argument that's known as public nuisance law. And this is the idea that companies can be held liable if they do something that somehow harms the public good. Until now, this legal theory was mostly used to address much smaller problems, maybe like a local contaminated water supply or a company blocking a public road. So J&J appealed, and today the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with the company. They said public nuisance law was just stretched far too thin in this case. They ruled 5-1 that public nuisance law wasn't meant to address a crisis as big and complex as this opioid epidemic.

KELLY: So total vindication for Johnson & Johnson?

MANN: Well, they say yes. In a statement sent to NPR this afternoon, company officials said Oklahoma's use of public nuisance law in this case was - and I'm quoting here - "misguided and unprecedented." J&J says their marketing of these prescription pain pills was responsible.

KELLY: All right. And let's turn to this other ruling. This was earlier this month in California, where a state judge rejected similar public nuisance claims against Johnson & Johnson and other drug companies. Is there a pattern emerging or too soon to say?

MANN: These rulings clearly do represent big back-to-back wins for the pharmaceutical industry, which, you know, has been hammered by thousands of these public nuisance lawsuits. Using this legal theory to sue companies over opioids has always been seen by legal experts as risky and untested. But Carl Tobias, who's an expert on opioid litigation at the University of Richmond, says he thinks it's still too early to conclude that all these opioid cases that use this public nuisance argument are now likely to fail.

CARL TOBIAS: You don't have a trend when you only have two fairly disparate opinions. We'll see in these other cases. It may well turn out to be a valid theory.

MANN: He thinks this public nuisance argument may still be upheld in some states by some courts. And there are other opioid cases underway right now in New York, Ohio and West Virginia. So, you know, we should find out soon if other courts see this differently and make some of these companies pay.

KELLY: Yeah - well, and pay a lot. We should just remind people for a second that the stakes here are enormous.

MANN: Yeah, potentially tens of billions of dollars. Local and state governments are getting slammed right now by these devastating rates of addiction, soaring overdoses, soaring deaths. And a lot of public health experts say this all did start with decisions made by these companies to sell opioids aggressively. Communities say they now need help to keep people alive, and they hope some of that money will come from these opioid lawsuits. But I have to say, decisions like the one today in Oklahoma could really complicate their efforts to win resources and money from these companies.

KELLY: Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann talking about today's ruling by Oklahoma state Supreme Court tossing out an opioid judgment against Johnson & Johnson.

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