Updated: Jan 12
For the past two decades, the United States has seen a rapid rise in the use of both prescription opioid drugs (like painkillers) and non-prescription drugs (such as heroin.)
The increase in use is clearly associated with the highly addictive nature of opioids as a whole and has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of overdose related deaths from opioid drugs.
This tragic issue has come to be known as the opioid epidemic and it has been back in the headlines lately, in large part due to a civil lawsuit filed against Purdue Pharma. A civil lawsuit asks the courts to award money to people harmed by negligence, and to use a money award to punish the company for wrongdoing.
Purdue Pharma and OxyContin
Purdue Pharma is a large, privately held pharmaceutical company that specializes in developing painkillers. The company introduced OxyContin, an opioid, in 1996 and heavily marketed the drug as a powerful and long-lasting painkiller. Most notably however, they advertised the drug as a “safer” and “less-addictive” alternative to other similar drugs on the market. Sales representatives pitched OxyContin to doctors with this message in an aggressive campaign that succeeded in making the opioid drug one of the nation’s most popular painkillers. Yet hundreds of government entities, including cities across the country and dozens of states, are now suing Purdue over the drug, arguing that this campaign was a monumental contributor to the nationwide opioid epidemic.
The Case Against Purdue Pharma
Most of these lawsuits have been consolidated into a single case filed in a federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, where Purdue is just one of many large pharmaceutical companies being threatened for damages caused by addictive opioid painkillers. But the OxyContin marketing campaign has come to the forefront of the case because executives at Purdue allegedly knew that the claims they made were false. In fact, Purdue already famously paid out one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in history back in 2007 over misbranding OxyContin as a less-addictive painkiller.
The difference this time around is that attorneys are pushing courts to make drug makers’ internal records finally available to the public. These records, which consist of thousands of pages of emails, internal memos and company directives, shed light on just how calculated the company’s efforts to deceive doctors and the public really were. Some documents from Purdue already leaked to the public indicate that the company knew OxyContin was far more addictive than they were telling doctors, but insisted their sales representatives continue to push them onto vulnerable customers. An even more troublesome document revealed a never-enacted plan to sell Purdue Pharma’s addiction treatment services to the very communities they knew were dependent on their drugs.
What This All Could Mean for Big Pharm
Aside from billions of dollars in reparations, the major victory prosecutors are aiming to take away from the lawsuits is more transparency from the pharmaceutical industry. Whereas most previous high profile cases dealing with misleading the public about drugs have ended in settlements that protect drug makers internal documents from ever being released to the public, attorneys are urging courts to do otherwise.
The documents already leaked in the Purdue Pharma case reveal that there was a large degree of deception being carried out by executives at the company in this instance alone. This transparency initiative offers us a hopeful glimpse at a more regulated pharmaceutical industry, which has come under fire over the years for being increasingly profit-driven and seemingly less concerned about the long-term effects and societal impacts of their products.
If successful, the fallout of this case could result in policies that decrease these companies’ ability to deceive the public with faulty or exaggerated claims about their drugs in an effort to maximize sales. Accordingly, in addition to curbing the opioid epidemic, such regulations on transparency could help resolve or dispel the negative connotations held by some about the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.
Purdue Faces Bankruptcy
The case gained significant media attention when it was filed in the middle of last year, but recent events have brought it back into the public eye. The latest development in the case is speculation this month that Purdue may file for bankruptcy. Typically, doing so freezes any ongoing lawsuits against a company and shifts them to bankruptcy court.
In this case, since Purdue Pharma is just one of many drug manufacturers and suppliers being sued, Purdue may just be segmented from the rest of the suit, which will continue otherwise undisturbed, while their case moves to bankruptcy. In a bankruptcy hearing, all of Purdue Pharma’s assets and debts will be evaluated, with secured creditors (i.e. banks and investors) being paid off first. The remaining assets are left to unsecured creditors (which in this case would likely include the plaintiffs in the opioid epidemic lawsuits) to be divided out proportionally to what is actually owed. Thus, while bankruptcy sounds like a bad thing for any company, Purdue Pharma is mulling this option as a potential strategy that could help them minimize their losses, as they may not have to pay the plaintiffs in full.
How Does the Opiate Crises Affect Vermonters?
The opioid epidemic is a nationwide crisis, but it has been particularly felt here in Vermont. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Vermont experienced a rate of 18.4 deaths per 100,000 persons due to opioid-related overdoses in 2016, five more than the national average that year. But even putting the obvious risk of death aside, the negative impacts of opioid abuse are far reaching and take a tremendous toll on not only the abuser but their loved ones as well.
Have You Been Affected by Opiates?
If you believe you or a loved one are the victim of the prescription opioid epidemic and want to know how these lawsuits may impact you, contact Meub Gallivan & Larson.
We will continue to pay attention to this case.