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California Judge Finds Drugmakers Not Liable in Opioid Crises

Posted on November 01, 2021

In a landmark bench trial, a California state judge on Nov. 1 found that drugmakers are not liable for contributing to the opioid crisis.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson released a 42-page tentative ruling rejecting claims brought by several California counties that four drugmakers created a “public nuisance” by fueling the opioid crises. The decision will still need to be finalized, but could represent an early victory by drugmakers in opioid-related trials.

The trial was brought by the combined counties of Orange, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara along with the City of Oakland, accusing drugmakers Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Allergan PLC of making false or misleading claims in their marketing of painkillers, which in turn led to increased prescriptions and improper use.

However, Judge Wilson found that, “there is simply no evidence to show that the rise in prescriptions was not the result of the medically appropriate provision of pain medications to patients in need.” While drugmaker contributions did not need to be precisely calculated, the opinion continued, evidence of increased or improper use needed to be more than “negligible or theoretical” based on “rank speculation.”

Judge Wilson further underscored that his decision is, “in no manner intended to ignore or minimize the existence and extend of the ongoing opioid crises.”

The trial is one of many currently in progress or scheduled to proceed against drugmakers for their alleged role in worsening the opioid crises. The first jury trials have begun in New York state court and Ohio federal court, and an additional bench ruling may be made shortly in a West Virginia bellwether case against distributors.

Only one other has a verdict so far: an earlier 2019 bench trial in Oklahoma found against drugmakers Janssen Pharmaceutical and Johnson & Johnson with a $465 million judgment. Contrary to the more recent California decision, the judge in the Oklahoma case found there was sufficient evidence of public nuisance caused by drugmakers exaggerating the benefits and minimizing the risks of opioids.

The case is People of the State of California v. Purdue Pharma LP et al., case number 2014-00725287, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Orange.

The tentative decision can be found here.