Can the lawful sale of products be retrospectively declared a “public nuisance” and tagged with enormous damages, based on theories that the products caused harm after being used by third parties not in court? Before such theories succeeded in an Oklahoma courtroom against Johnson & Johnson over its promotion of opioid painkillers, they had been unsuccessfully deployed against the makers of guns used in crime, while another set of recent lawsuits attempts to deploy them in hopes of making the sellers of fossil fuels pay for the harms of climate change. Scott Keller, Houston Chronicle/Texans for Lawsuit Reform:
Public nuisance claims traditionally have been limited to conduct interfering with truly public rights. For example, courts for decades have recognized public nuisance claims brought by governments to remove impediments from their public highways or waterways. Even then, courts generally did not recognize such claims where a legislature or administrative agency had already regulated an industry. After all, if the political branches of government regulated an industry, then they were telling courts what did and did not qualify as an unlawful “nuisance.”
But a series of recent lawsuits wants courts to ignore these limits on public nuisance claims and obliterate entire industries. These lawsuits seek to massively expand what counts as a public right, and they want courts to destroy companies that are already complying with existing regulations.
Similarly: “’A loss on the public nuisance theory in the Oklahoma opioid public nuisance theory would have been a potentially devastating state court precedent for the climate change public nuisance cases now pending in state courts,’ said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard.” [Dino Grandoni, Washington Post]
Which raises a question: when trial lawyers were pitching Oklahoma politicos on the large sums to be gained by pursuing strained public nuisance theories against opioid makers, do you think they mentioned that the theories if embraced might work to shut down the locally popular oil and gas business?