Five states announced Thursday that they are taking legal action against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family who control the drug company, accusing them of deceptively pushing powerful painkillers and misrepresenting the drugs’ safety as the pills sparked the opioid crisis.
In a news conference, West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey said his state was seeking to hold both the company and Richard Sackler responsible for deaths and other harms from the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
“Even when it became apparent that thousands of people were dying of opioid abuse, Purdue doubled down by continuing its relentless and deceptive campaign” to persuade doctors to write prescriptions for OxyContin, Morrisey said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said his state’s efforts were based on “two foundational falsehoods” that Purdue promoted widely: That the risk of becoming addicted to Purdue’s drug was very low and that under-treating pain could cause great harm.
At least 40 other states have sued companies involved in manufacturing, distributing or dispensing opioids. About 1,600 cities, counties, Native American tribes and others have also filed claims that have been consolidated in an enormous federal lawsuit in Cleveland.
Recent state lawsuits are increasingly naming Sackler family members, in part because of evidence that they may have transferred billions of dollars out of the company and into personal accounts over about a decade. Some of the attorneys general also said Richard Sackler controlled the company’s strategy to push high doses and increasing amounts of the drug.
In a statement issued Thursday, Purdue said the “complaints are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system. The states cannot link the conduct alleged to the harm described, and so they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories, which if adopted by courts, will undermine the bedrock legal principle of causation.”
In March, Purdue agreed to a $270 million out-of-court settlement with the state of Oklahoma, where the company faced its first trial on these issues. Members of the Sackler family will pay $75 million of that total from personal funds over five years.
Last week, Purdue won a victory in state court when a North Dakota judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit against Purdue.
Purdue’s president and chief executive, Craig Landau, said in March that declaring bankruptcy is an option the company might have to explore if jury verdicts or settlements become too costly.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said Thursday that the states had been negotiating with the company but decided to abandon that approach in favor of legal action.
Thursday’s announcement came a day after New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art became the latest cultural institution to say it would no longer accept donations from members of the Sackler family, who are major philanthropists to art museums and educational institutions around the world.
Overdoses caused by legal and illegal opioids are responsible for more than 400,000 deaths since 1999, with about half from prescription narcotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The states are seeking compensation for the costs of responding to overdose deaths and addiction during the two-decade drug crisis that began after Purdue introduced OxyContin in 1996. The company aggressively promoted the drug to physicians for a wide variety of aches and pains, though experts say it should be used primarily for end of life care and the pain of cancer and surgery.
In documents released in February as part of its lawsuit, Massachusetts alleged that members of the Sackler family aggressively directed sales representatives to push extremely high doses of the drug and persuade doctors to write more prescriptions for more frequent use.
The state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, accused the company of engaging in frequent acts of deception and misconduct to make as much money as possible.
In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, lawyers for members of the Sackler family said Healey’s lawsuit contains “misleading and inflammatory allegations” and takes internal company emails out of context.
New York also has targeted the Sackler family in its lawsuit.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading doctors, regulators and the public about the dangers of the drug and collectively paid $635 million in fines.
Morrisey noted that West Virginia had previously sued Purdue in 2001, recouping $10 million in a settlement with the company. But he said the state was legally entitled to pursue Purdue again because it had not changed its practices.
He promised to “get as much as we possibly can for the state of West Virginia,” which, he said, had suffered “far too much senseless death” and “many ruined lives.”