Skip to content
Noah Feldman

The J&J Opioid Verdict Is Just How the U.S. Does Regulation

The ritual of waiting for something bad to happen, and then suing a private corporation, is peculiarly American.

Drug makers who don’t settle may find themselves being sued.

Drug makers who don’t settle may find themselves being sued.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images North America

The news that an Oklahoma court is ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its part in feeding the opioid crisis probably comes as a surprise to no one familiar with the weird way the United States deals with crises. From IUDs to tobacco and beyond, Americans rely on self-interested plaintiffs’ lawyers to sue deep-pocketed manufacturers – and on state courts to impose big verdicts that are meant to redistribute wealth from companies and their shareholders to state taxpayers and (sometimes) victims.

It’s worth pausing to notice the extremely bizarre structure of this uniquely American practice – and to wonder whether it achieves the social goal of creating incentives to avoid the next public health crisis. The court’s opinion in the Oklahoma lawsuit strongly suggests that plaintiffs, defendants, and judges here are all playing a prescribed role in a highly ritualized form of Kabuki theater, one where the outcome is not public health or safety but merely assigning “blame” before doing it all over again the next time.