Oklahoma’s highest court on Tuesday issued a landmark ruling against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, ruling that a judge had misinterpreted a public nuisance law. The 5-1 decision overturned a lower court ruling that required the drug company to pay the state $ 465 million for its share in the opioid epidemic. The Supreme Court’s finding is the second time this month of public nuisance complaints, a key legal strategy used in thousands of cases in an attempt to hold the pharmaceutical industry responsible for the epidemic, have been invalidated.
Judge James R. Winchester, writing for the majority opinion, definitively stated that “Oklahoma’s public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacture, marketing and sale of prescription opioids.” He noted that Johnson & Johnson could not be held “perpetually responsible” for its products, as it “had no control over its products across the multiple levels of distribution.” In a statement, the pharmaceutical company called the decision a “clear and unassailable decision” and expressed “deep sympathy” to those affected by the epidemic. Federal data has shown that opioid abuse has contributed to the deaths of more than half a million people in the United States since the late 1990s.