US Chamber supports appeal of $465M Oklahoma opioid judgment

FILE - This June 17, 2019, file photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce can support Johnson & Johnson’s bid to overturn a $465 million judgement against the opioid manufacturer, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled.

The court allowed the Chamber along with more than half a dozen pro-business and public policy groups and individuals to file friend of the court briefs.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman last summer ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million to help address the state’s opioid crisis, saying the consumer products giant downplayed the risk of addiction and death while overstating the benefits of opioid painkillers.

Prescription opioids have been linked to more than 6,100 deaths in Oklahoma from 2000-2017.

Balkman reduced the amount to pay about a month later by nearly $107 million, acknowledging he miscalculated in determining how much Johnson & Johnson must pay the state to help address the state’s opioid crisis.

Attorneys for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued there was “no basis in Oklahoma law” for the way the state’s public nuisance statute was applied in this case, according to The Oklahoman.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office declined to comment to the newspaper on the friend of the court briefs in support of Johnson & Johnson.

State attorneys have previously argued it was appropriate to file the case as a public nuisance lawsuit since the state was seeking money to abate the opioid epidemic rather than damages to pay for harm caused by the company.

“Unless this Court overturns the decision, Oklahoma will become ground zero for every breed of public-nuisance claim imaginable,” the Chamber said. “The decision will chill business activity throughout Oklahoma.”

The Goldwater Institute also voiced its intention to file a brief in support of Johnson & Johnson’s appeal. The public policy foundation that advocates for limited government said it will argue that the public nuisance statute is unconstitutionally vague and that the trial court’s ruling violates constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.

“The trial court ignored the differences between actually false speech and speech that is only “potentially misleading,” attorneys for the Goldwater Institute said.