Supreme Court Reverses $465M Johnson & Johnson Lawsuit
The ruling of a 2019 Opioid case against Johnson & Johnson was overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday. The original case was the first of its kind to go to trial and found that the pharmaceutical company played a major role in the state’s Opioid overdose deaths. In a 5 to 1 outcome, the Supreme Court determined that the original $465 million verdict incorrectly applied the state’s public nuisance law.
Just last week, a California state judge determined that J&J and 3 other drug companies are not responsible for the state’s Opioid crisis. Like the Oklahoma ruling, the California case did not believe a public nuisance was provable in this situation. Currently, there are about 3,000 lawsuits with similar public nuisance claims against drug manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that are derived from the poppy plant. These substances can relieve feelings of pain by affecting receptors in the brain and body. While Opioids like Heroin and Fentanyl are illicit in the US, some Opioids, such as Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, can be obtained legally through prescriptions. These substances, even when prescribed by a medical professional, have a high potential for misuse and addiction which can lead to fatal outcomes. Individuals who become addicted to Opioids after using a prescription may turn to more dangerous but easier to obtain substances, like Heroin, as an alternative.
Since 1999, there have been over 760,000 Opioid related deaths in the US. In 2019 alone, 70,630 people in the US died as a result of an Opioid overdose. Oklahoma specifically experienced the loss of more than 4,600 citizens to Opioid overdose deaths from 2007 to 2017. Nationwide and locally, fatalities due to Opioids are considered to be a major public health, social, and economic crisis.
Johnson & Johnson’s Involvement In The Opioid Crisis
The Opioid crisis, also known as the Opioid epidemic, began in 1995 when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a pain medication developed by Purdue Pharma. This substance, called OxyContin, was marketed as being effective in controlling pain while having a low potential for abuse due to its controlled release formula. Pharmaceutical companies began pushing sales of OxyContin to distributors which led to an increase in Opioid prescriptions in the US. Rapidly, the substance started to be misused by people all over the country. By 2003, 2.8 million people were using OxyContin for non-medical use.
In the 2019 Oklahoma Johnson & Johnson case, the state provided evidence of the company’s contributions to the Opioid epidemic. This evidence argued that the drug manufacturer targeted high prescribing doctors, women, and veterans and misrepresented OxyContin as being safe to use for every day pain. Additionally, it was presented that J&J created a mutant strain of poppy which allowed them to manufacture Opioids, as well as supply about 60% of the active ingredients for Opioids made in the US. Because Johnson & Johnson was supplying ingredients to other companies, the state claimed that for 15 years the company campaigned the sale of Opioids, even those manufactured by other companies.
Based on this evidence, Oklahoma declared that Johnson & Johnson’s actions fall under the state’s public nuisance law which was instituted in 1910. A public nuisance is defined as conduct that interferes with the rights of the public. Oklahoma’s law specifically says, “A public nuisance is one which affects an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon the individuals may be unequal.”
Oklahoma Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court’s reversal, as stated in the opinion written by Justice R. Winchester, determined that the 2019 ruling took the public nuisance law too far by extending it to manufacturing, marketing, and prescription Opioid sales. Winchester went on to say that Johnson & Johnson, and companies in general, cannot be liable for how their products are used by patients after they have been sold. They found this to be especially true as there are multiple levels of distribution. Manufacturers sell to distributors and wholesalers who then supply to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors. It is at this point that Johnson & Johnson’s products are prescribed to patients.
The lawful use of Opioids for treating pain, such as cancer related pain, was also cited as being a reason the public nuisance verdict was overturned. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson stopped marketing Opioids in 2015 and completely stopped selling them after a 2021 New York lawsuit. This case resulted in a $230 million settlement and the agreement to end nationwide sale of Opioids. Despite this settlement, the company does not admit liability or wrongdoing.
Although the 2019 case was overturned, the Supreme court does not want to minimize the suffering that Opioids have caused many Oklahoma citizens. Johnson & Johnson also acknowledges the tragedy caused by the misuse of Opioids in the past 2+ decades but agrees with the court’s decision. The company has said that they support the overturning of what they called a misguided and unprecedented attempt to expand public nuisance laws.
“We recognize the Opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. The company’s actions relating to the marketing and promotion of these important pain medications were appropriate and responsible,” Johnson & Johnson said in response to the ruling and on their involvement with Opioid epidemic.
Because public nuisance laws are different depending on the state, it is not known whether this overturned case and the California ruling will inform the many similar cases against drug manufacturers. Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson, along with 2 other companies, agreed to pay a $26 billion settlement. Currently, 42 states, 4 territories, and Washington D.C. have signed to this agreement. It is possible that the overturning of the 2019 Oklahoma verdict could convince states that are on the fence into signing on to this settlement.