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California judge rules for drug firms in opioid lawsuit

November 2, 2021

Handing the win to pharmaceutical companies, the judge said the plaintiffs hadn't proven that deceptive marketing by the firms led to a rise in unnecessary opioid prescriptions.

In this file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave protest messages written on pill bottles
In this file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave protest messages written on pill bottlesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Hill

A California judge on Monday ruled that pharmaceutical companies were not liable for the opioid abuse crisis in the western US state.

States and local governments across the US filed more than 3,300 lawsuits against drug makers over the opioid crisis. Monday's ruling was the first win for drug companies in such cases. 

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and the three US major drug distributors — McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and Amersource Bergen — are currently working on finalizing a deal to pay up to $26 billion  (€22.4 billion) to settle the thousands of cases against them nationwide. 

Monday's ruling involves J&J, AbbVie Inc's Allergan subsidiary, Endo International, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and others.

California's Santa Clara, Los Angeles and Orange counties and the city of Oakland allege that deceptive marketing from the companies created a public nuisance, calling for them to pay over $50 billion, in addition to penalties.

What did the judge say?

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued a tentative ruling that said the counties hadn't proven that the drug companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions.

"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," Wilson wrote in a ruling of more than 40 pages.

"Any adverse downstream consequences flowing from medically appropriate prescriptions cannot constitute an actionable public nuisance,'' Monday's ruling said.

What were the arguments?

The counties had argued that the companies' advertising downplayed opioids' addictive risks and promoted them for broader uses than intended.

In the months-long, non-jury trial, they said the pills flooded their communities and caused a rise in overdose deaths as a result of the companies' marketing. 

Meanwhile, the companies argued that "opioid medications are an appropriate treatment for many chronic-pain patients," according to court filings. They also said much of their marketing mimicked approved warnings by the US Food and Drug Administration.

All sides, including the judge, have acknowledged that there is an opioid abuse crisis. Wilson said drug abuse hospitalizations and overdose deaths "starkly demonstrate the enormity of the ongoing problem."

J&J said in a statement that the "crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue," but the ruling showed it engaged in "appropriate and responsible'' marketing of its prescription painkillers.

Teva said it was pleased with the ruling but "a clear win for the many patients in the US who suffer from opioid addiction will only come when comprehensive settlements are finalized and resources are made available to all who need them."

fb/msh (AP, Reuters)