“A judge in Oklahoma on Monday ruled that Johnson & Johnson had intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids, and ordered it to pay the state $572 million.” The state had asked for $17 billion. [Jan Hoffman, New York Times and sidebar on why J&J, the deepest pocket, was the only defendant left standing in the Oklahoma case; opinion; Paul Demko, Politico; Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post] Caleb Brown interviewed me for the Cato Daily Podcast:
For other skeptical views of the case, see Daniel Fisher, Legal NewsLine (“J&J had about 3% market share, sold abuse-resistant drugs, and Oklahoma didn’t present evidence of a single doctor who was misled by its marketing.”) and followup (problems with state’s legal theory), Jeffrey Singer/Cato, and Jacob Sullum, Reason (sweeping definition of public nuisance) and followup (other problems). [More: Jonathan Turley]
Particularly worth noting is Jacob Sullum’s account of the logical path traced by Judge James Hill in North Dakota in recently dismissing a suit against Purdue Pharma:
One of the claims against the company involved a public nuisance statute very similar to Oklahoma’s. Hill noted that “North Dakota courts have not extended the nuisance statute to cases involving the sale of goods.” He cited a 1993 case in which the Tioga Public School District #15 of Williams County, North Dakota, argued that the sale of acoustical plaster containing asbestos qualified as a public nuisance.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which handled the case because it involved an out-of-state defendant, observed that “North Dakota cases applying the state’s nuisance statute all appear to arise in the classic context of a landowner or other person in control of property conducting an activity on his land in such a manner as to interfere with the property rights of a neighbor.” The 8th Circuit worried about the consequences of venturing beyond that “classic context”:
To interpret the nuisance statute in the manner espoused by Tioga would in effect totally rewrite North Dakota tort law. Under Tioga’s theory, any injury suffered in North Dakota would give rise to a cause of action under section 43-02-01 regardless of the defendant’s degree of culpability or of the availability of other traditional tort law theories of recovery. Nuisance thus would become a monster that would devour in one gulp the entire law of tort, a development we cannot imagine the North Dakota legislature intended when it enacted the nuisance statute.
Hill said he “agrees with the reasoning of the Eighth Circuit in Tioga.” As in that case, he said, the state in its lawsuit against Purdue was “clearly seeking to extend the application of the nuisance statute to a situation where one party has sold to another a product that later is alleged to constitute a nuisance.” Hill added:
The reality is that Purdue has no control over its product after it is sold to distributors, then to pharmacies, and then prescribed to consumers, i.e. after it enters the market. Purdue cannot control how doctors prescribe its products and it certainly cannot control how individual patients use and respond to its products, regardless of any warning or instruction Purdue may give.
Judging from the cases cited by Judge Balkman, Oklahoma courts have not read that state’s nuisance law to cover situations like this either—until now.