The highest court in Oklahoma on Tuesday threw out a historic ruling against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, finding that a judge had misinterpreted a public nuisance law. The 5-1 decision reversed a lower court ruling that required the drug company to pay the state $465 million for its part in the opioid epidemic. The Supreme Court’s conclusion is the second time this month public nuisance claims, a key legal strategy being used in thousands of cases attempting to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the epidemic, have been invalidated.
Justice James R. Winchester, writing for the majority opinion, said definitively that “Oklahoma public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing and selling of prescription opioids.” It noted that Johnson & Johnson could not be held “perpetually liable” for its products, as it “had no control of its products through the multiple levels of distribution.” In a statement, the drug company called the ruling a “clear and unassailable decision,” and extended its “deep sympathy” to those affected by the epidemic. Federal data has shown that the abuse of opioids has contributed to the deaths of more than half a million people in the U.S. since the late 1990s.