What Happens When a Court-Ordered Judgment Is Overturned?

Losing in civil court generally means having some sort of judgment entered against you and in favor of the other party. In some cases, the judgment is little more than an order to pay the other party’s legal costs. But sometimes judgments can involve a lot more money. What happens when such a judgment is overturned on appeal?

This sort of thing occurs more often than you might know. A recent example is found in the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s overturning a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson. The judgment was originally entered against the company in 2019 as the result of a lawsuit blaming the state’s opioid crisis on Johnson & Johnson’s alleged “false and misleading marketing.”

The Court’s ruling appears to be the end of the line for this case. There doesn’t appear to be any federal statute that plaintiffs could pursue in hopes of forcing Johnson & Johnson to pay. So that’s the end of it. The court reversed the previous decision and essentially eliminated the company’s obligation to pay.

Much Smaller Civil Judgments

The Johnson & Johnson case represents an unusually large judgment. Most judgments entered in civil court are small by comparison. One judgment might be a few thousand dollars while another could be tens of thousands. But rarely do civil court cases end in judgments worth hundreds of millions.

When judgments are entered, courts do not typically enforce them. That is left up to plaintiffs and their legal agents. Some plaintiffs go on to try to collect on their own. Others retain the services of an attorney or a judgment collection agency.

Judgment Collectors, a Salt Lake City agency specializing in unpaid judgments, says that defendants often go out of their way to avoid payment. The agency’s job is to track down defendants, make contact, and work with them on a way to settle the outstanding debt.

Working Through the Appeal Process

A relatively small judgment may not be worth the effort to take to appeal. But when you are looking at something like $465 million, you don’t just pony up the cash without a fight. So it’s no surprise that Johnson & Johnson appealed the previous ruling. Had they lost their appeal, they would have had to come up with the money.

There are times when defendants will go through the appeal process in hopes of delaying payment. They may not feel they have any realistic chance of winning the case but working through the appeal process buys more time. Savvy judgment collection agencies are not discouraged by such actions. They know enough to play the game and let the process work itself out.

When All Appeals Are Exhausted

There comes a point in every case at which the court’s decision is final. That point is reached when all appeals have been exhausted. The final ruling concludes a case and either overturns the judgment or lets it stand. When the latter is the case, the award goes back to the creditor for collection.

Judgments that are overturned by higher courts are pretty much null and void. So in Johnson & Johnson’s case, the $465 million lower court judgment is meaningless. At this point, it has been regulated to mere words in a court document that now serves only historical purposes. The plaintiff – which, in this case, is the state of Oklahoma – will never see the money.

When a court overturns a judgment, what happens next depends on where the case is in the appeal process. Sometimes that’s it. It is the end of the road and no money will be paid.