Oklahoma Supreme Court Sides with Johnson & Johnson in Opioid Lawsuit

Oklahoma state building

The opioid addiction crisis that ripped across the country has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, hence the need to hold pharmaceutical corporations accountable for their role. Pharma companies were the first institutions to create a wide-scale push for increased manufacturing, distribution, prescription, and consumption of opioid pain relievers, a decision that would launch the American population into a dire crisis of opioid addiction and overdose deaths.

While several of the lawsuits levied against pharma giants have seen some success, the most recent case filed against Johnson & Johnson failed to hold the pharma giant accountable.

The Latest News in Oklahoma’s Pharma Battle

On the 9th of November, 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson. The lawsuit had entailed an allegation against the drugmaker for the deceptive marketing it had used to make J&J’s opioid pain relievers seem safe and non-addictive.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was based almost exclusively on a technicality. The Oklahoma court ultimately ruled that the State of Oklahoma could not sue J&J under public nuisance law because public nuisance law does not extend to the manufacturing, marketing, and sales of prescription opioids.

The ruling is especially concerning, as it’s one of the first of more than 3,300 lawsuits like it to go to trial. If other courts rule in a similar fashion as the Oklahoma Supreme Court, it could mean that pharma companies will get away with the harm they caused. No accountability, and no justice.

Court judge

In August of 2019, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman ruled that J&J had indeed engaged in misleading marketing about the benefits of painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta. Judge Balkman concluded that their addictive risks had caused a public nuisance. So there was a precedent for bringing J&J to trial on public nuisance charges, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court felt Oklahoma State’s allegations against J&J went beyond the confines of what public nuisance law was intended for.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice James Winchester criticized the Cleveland County District Judge’s 2019 ruling, saying that using public nuisance law to go after pharma companies was an overreach. Quoting him, “The district court’s expansion of public nuisance law allows courts to manage public policy matters that should be dealt with by the legislative and executive branches.”

While most definitely a blow to plaintiffs and those seeking some form of justice in light of the nationwide opioid epidemic, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling may have a silver lining. According to some legal experts, the ruling may inspire Oklahoma and other states to come forward and attempt different measures for holding pharma companies accountable, namely by throwing their lot in with other ongoing, multi-billion-dollar settlements that J&J is currently negotiating with states, counties, localities, and individuals.

“Perhaps the realization that, despite the gravity of the epidemic, trials are inherently risky and appellate courts are largely unpredictable will ultimately help increase participation [in the settlement].”

Paul Geller, a plaintiff’s lawyer and one of the legal experts working on the separate, $26 billion settlement, suggested that the State of Oklahoma may consider joining that settlement, which is in the final negotiation stage. “Perhaps the realization that, despite the gravity of the epidemic, trials are inherently risky and appellate courts are largely unpredictable will ultimately help increase participation [in the settlement].”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling was a setback, but it’s not a total loss. Oklahoma’s allegations still warrant due consideration; they just have to be presented along different legal avenues.

Parties who want to learn more about the allegations against J&J can read about the case in public court documents.

Opioid Crisis in Oklahoma; Why Residents Must Hold Pharma Accountable

One does not have to look far to find the devastation of the drug addiction epidemic affecting the lives of everyday people in Oklahoma. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, of the more than 700 drug overdoses that occur in Oklahoma each year, 60% of them involve prescription drugs, mainly opioid prescription drugs (85% of all prescription-drug-related deaths in Oklahoma involve opioid pain relievers). In fact, more drug deaths in Oklahoma involve prescription opioids than all illicit drugs combined.

The Oklahoma State Health Department compiled a long list of evidence on this issue, indicating a clear link between the production and distribution of pharmaceutical opioids and a growing drug crisis in the state. According to the Health Department’s data, approximately 140,000 Oklahomans abuse prescription opioids, with 2,229 fatal overdoses occurring in the state between 2013 and 2017. Prescription opioids alone account for more than half of all drug-related deaths in the state.

Nonfatal opioid overdoses are also a serious problem in the state. For every fatal overdose, there are two non-fatal overdoses where emergency responders are able to intervene and save the life of the addict. Of the 4,400 nonfatal opioid overdoses that occurred in Oklahoma between 2012 and 2016, about 95% of them involved a prescription opioid pain reliever.

Paramedics at work

Oklahoma also has an overprescribing problem, where-in more prescription pain relievers are prescribed than are needed. The Oklahoma Health Department warns against this and encourages Oklahomans to consider and explore all options before turning to opioids. Yet despite that, in 2018, Oklahoma providers wrote 79.1 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons, compared to the national average of 51.4 prescriptions for every 100 persons.

Beyond opioid pain relievers, other prescription drugs are also culpable in a large share of overdose deaths in Oklahoma. For example, one study found that prescription benzodiazepines were often present in drug overdoses that involved multiple drugs.

Saving Lives; The Importance of Seeking Treatment for Loved Ones

There is no doubt that Oklahoma is struggling with a serious opioid addiction problem, mainly driven by prescription opioids. It follows from that then the sheer importance of holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for pedaling addictive and potentially lethal drugs in the state, particularly while masquerading under the idea that such drugs are safe, effective, and non-addictive.

But even more important than holding pharma companies accountable, those individuals who are addicted to drugs in Oklahoma need to get help. Litigations against pharma companies tomorrow will not save addicts’ lives today. If you know someone who is using drugs and alcohol, please ensure that they enter a qualified drug and alcohol rehab center as soon as possible.

Court cases take time. Pharma companies can be brought to justice in the coming months. But addicts need addiction treatment help right now. Please do not wait until it is too late to help them.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.