In the past few years several states, including Oklahoma, California and New York, have successfully sued Johnson and Johnson for the social costs incurred by those states in the opioid epidemic. On Tuesday, November 9, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court overturned its 2019 ruling that Johnson and Johnson was to pay $465 million to the state. This overruling follows on the heels of a similar decision in California.
Johnson and Johnson had originally been found to be a public nuisance, aggressively marketing its opioid products and causing rampant addiction and overdoses. Several states have sued the manufacturers, who profited mightily on the suffering of society. Over 400,000 deaths have been attributed to opioid addiction and overdose in the last two decades, rivaling the number of people killed in traffic accidents. The opioid epidemic is estimated to have cost the public $179 billion in 2018 alone (estimated costs calculated based upon mortality, healthcare, lost productivity, criminal justice and child and family assistance).
Johnson and Johnson’s role in the epidemic is unique in that its operation starts in the poppy fields in Tasmania, then goes through the extraction, then the production and sale of this product to companies like Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin. Johnson and Johnson (conveniently for them) also produces the active ingredient in Naloxone, the drug used to prevent death from opioid overdoses. The case in Oklahoma was overturned on a technicality, stating that the public nuisance statute was not intended for “large public health crises.” In the ruling, the judges determined that ‘product liability’ and the ‘nuisance laws’ are “two distinct causes of action, each with boundaries that are not intended to overlap.” Are you confused?
The language of the law is vague and the claim allows for broad interpretation, essentially letting Johnson and Johnson profit off of the social devastation caused by its aggressive marketing.
The “public nuisance statute” was put in place to protect the public. It has been used to pay for the public costs incurred when a business causes harm, as when a business pollutes the water or air and this results in health or property damage to the public. But the judges declared the statute was meant only for localized damages. If this is the interpretation that stands, then all large corporations will no longer be held accountable for large scale damage because it isn’t ‘localized.’ What a business opportunity! Cause harm to large swaths of people, and it’s okay! It’s outrageous what passes for justice in a capitalist society.