Last month an Oklahoma judge ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for their part in the opioid epidemic that has spread throughout this country like wild fire. The decision stemmed and rested on the Court’s finding that Johnson & Johnson was, in part, responsible for the public nuisance brought before the Court by the Attorney General.
This is the first time in history that a state has utilized the common law of public nuisance against a fortune 500 country alleging that the company’s behaviors contributed to a public nuisance, that subsequently caused damages to the public entity. Read about the verdict here.
Little has been said about the far reaching impact the decision will undoubtedly have on industry and corporations across the country for decades to come, though the realization that Oklahoma’s finding is significant is not lost in many major board rooms across the country.
For example, major lawsuits that have not garnered near the attention as opioids, have been making their way through the federal courts riding the same public nuisance claims. County and city governments from Rhode Island to California are bringing lawsuits against corporate giants like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dutch Royal Shell and BP under the theory that the carbon dioxide their products inject into the atmosphere has also created a public nuisance, and by extension, is contributing to climate change.
If successful, the lawsuits could put oil companies on the hook to pay billions of dollars to local governments contending with the cost of higher seas, hotter summers and other effects of elevated greenhouse gases – much like the billions of dollars being sought in the Opioid multi-district litigation venued in Cleveland, Ohio. Read more about this development here.
On another front, just yesterday, Goddard School District in Kansas, announced authority to go forward with a lawsuit against various e-cigarette and vaping companies, contending that vape craze that has run ramshot through the school has impacted the school’s ability to teach and educate, similarly based on the same contentions as that surrounding the public nuisance claim. See Goddard’s announcement here.
If corporate America continues to place profits over safety, the wave of public nuisance claims will undoubtedly become more prevalent and broader in nature, and verdicts for billions of dollars will no doubt become the norm.