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An Orange County Superior Court Judge 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.

It marked the first trial win for any drug companies in the more than 3,300 lawsuits filed by states and local governments over a drug abuse crisis that the U.S. government says led to nearly 500,000 opioid overdose deaths over two decades.

Attorneys representing four California counties argued the drug companies used false and misleading marketing to push up the sale of prescription opioids. The Sixth Amended Complaint asserted causes of action for False Advertising , Unfair Competition and Public Nuisance against the companies. The companies denied any wrongdoing.

Phase I of this case regarding liability was tried to the Court between April 19, 2021 and July 27, 2021 . No party requested trial by jury on any claim or issue. The entire trial was conducted remotely, via the Zoom platform. All parties rested on July 27, 2021. The Court set a briefing schedule for closing briefs, and closing arguments were heard on September 30, 2021 and October 1, 2021.

In his 41-page ruling, Superior Court 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.

He also acknowledged that his Court is aware of the toll being taken on society by what has been variously referred to as the “opioid crisis” or the “opioid epidemic” and that the defendants do not dispute that there is an opioid crisis.

However he noted that “the California Legislature has approved, and continues to approve, the availability of opioid medications, through prescriptions, by passing the laws described” in the opinion.

The ruling went on to say “As the Historical and Statutory Notes to Business & Professions Code section 2241.5 state, “it is the intent of the Legislature to encourage physicians to provide adequate pain management to patients in California consistent with Section 2241.5.” And the California Legislature made clear its intention to expand, rather than restrict, the appropriate prescribing of opioid medications.

“In addition to its relevance to proof of the “unreasonableness” element of a public nuisance claim as discussed above, the absence of evidence concerning medically inappropriate prescriptions also breaks the chain of causation between Defendants’ alleged wrongful conduct and the harms complained of.

The ruling reviewed documents presented during the trial against each defendant in great detail, and concluded that none of the identified statements, within the applicable statute of limitations periods, to be false or misleading. An allegedly false or misleading statement in an internal company document, that was in no way published or disseminated before the public, would not qualify as “false advertising” under the statute or applicable cases.

The ruling concludes that “There will accordingly be judgment for Defendants on all claims.”

The ruling came as J&J and the three largest U.S. drug distributors – McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and AmersourceBergen — work to finalize a proposed deal to pay up to $26 billion to settle the thousands of cases against them. And a bankruptcy judge in August approved a settlement by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and its wealthy Sackler family owners of the claims against them that the company values at more than $10 billion.

In a statement, the lead lawyers overseeing related federal lawsuits against the companies — Jayne Conroy, Paul Farrell and Joe Rice — said they strongly disagreed with the ruling and stressed that it did not impact related cases nationally.

The only other opioid trial to reach a verdict resulted in an Oklahoma judge in 2019 ordering J&J to pay $465 million to the state. J&J is appealing that decision.

Trials are currently underway a New York case against Teva and AbbVie and in Ohio against three pharmacy chain operators. A West Virginia federal judge recently finished hearing evidence in a trial involving the distributors.