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A California court says drug companies aren't liable for the state's opioid crisis

In a ruling issued late Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson found the companies, including Johnson & Johnson, aren't "legally liable" for the opioid crisis.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty
In a ruling issued late Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson found the companies, including Johnson & Johnson, aren't "legally liable" for the opioid crisis.

Updated November 2, 2021 at 8:38 AM ET

A state judge in California ruled late Monday that four drug companies can't be held liable for that state's opioid epidemic. Communities had hoped for tens of billions of dollars in compensation to help ease the addiction crisis.

Attorneys representing four California counties argued the drug companies Allergan, Endo, Johnson & Johnson and Teva used false and misleading marketing to push up the sale of prescription opioids.

The companies denied any wrongdoing. If found liable, they would likely have been forced to pay for a wide range of costly public health and drug treatment programs.

In his 41-page ruling, however, Judge Peter J. Wilson said it was unclear the drug industry's marketing efforts led to directly to a rise in illegal use of prescription opioid painkillers.

"The Court finds that plaintiffs have failed to prove an actionable public nuisance for which defendants, or any of them, are legally liable," Wilson concluded.

In a statement sent to NPR, a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson praised the ruling.

The company's "actions relating to the marketing and promotion of its important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible, and did not cause any public nuisance," the statement said.

This is a significant victory for the drug industry, which faces a barrage of opioid lawsuits in state and federal courts around the country.

Opioid cases are underway currently in New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

In 2019, J&J was found liable for contributing to the opioid crisis by a state judge in Oklahoma and ordered to pay $465 million in damages. That verdict is now being appealed.

J&J executives have signaled the company will take part in a $26 billion national opioid settlement that includes drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson now being finalized.

This state court ruling in California comes as drug overdose deaths have continued to soar nationwide, killing nearly 100,000 Americans in a 12-month period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While rejecting liability for the companies in this case, Judge Wilson acknowledged the devastation caused by the opioid crisis.

"This Court is aware of the toll being taken on society," Wilson wrote. "Opioid-related hospitalization rates and opioid-related deaths starkly demonstrate the enormity of the on-going problem."

While prescription opioids are widely seen as the spur of the opioid crisis, most drug fatalities now are linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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