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Kentucky Lawsuit over OxyContin could be Detrimental to Manufacturer

Oct 24, 2014

The state of Kentucky has filed a lawsuit over the best-selling painkiller OxyContin that could be devastating for manufacturer Purdue. According to Bloomberg News, the state alleges that Purdue engaged in actions that fueled widespread addiction. Kentucky alleges that OxyContin addiction has resulted in crime sprees, with users ending up in jail, public treatment facilities or dead from overdose.

OxyContin is a powerful opioid, a type of narcotic pain medication. The time-release pills are effective for 12 hours of pain relief. However, addicts soon found that they could get an immediate, intense high by crushing the pills and circumventing the time-release function. According to Bloomberg, opioid abuse is widespread in rural America.

Purdue has managed to dodge the majority of litigation thus far, and has never been to trial over OxyContin abuse. But now, Bloomberg reports that the Kentucky lawsuit is a “legal nightmare” for Purdue. The company's own chief financial officer said the potential consequences would be “crippling.”

Kentucky alleges that the Purdue sales force misrepresented the drug as difficult to become addicted to, despite research showing that a user could obtain most of the active ingredient simply by crushing it. Doctors and others were allegedly deceived by sales representatives, who assured them that the painkiller did not produce a “buzz” and was less addictive compared to shorter-acting medications. Purdue hid the risks of OxyContin, the lawsuit alleges.

In 2007, Purdue settled allegations over OxyContin with federal prosecutors. The company paid $627 million in fines; three top executives and a Purdue unit pleaded guilty to “misbranding” the drug by claiming that it is less addictive than other narcotics. According to Bloomberg, it was the 11th largest fine paid by a pharmaceutical firm in a U.S. Department of Justice case. Of this settlement, $160 million was allocated to pay back the federal government and states for defrauded Medicaid programs. Kentucky was offered $500,000. It was the only state to turn down the settlement, and filed its own lawsuit.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway says the widespread abuse resulted in crime and misery. "I want to hold them accountable in eastern Kentucky for what they did," he said, according to Bloomberg. "We have lost an entire generation. Half the pharmacies in Pike County have bulletproof glass. We had FedEx trucks being knocked off. It was the Wild West."

"There was a time when I was going to three funerals a week," says Wayne Rutherford, the executive for the Pike County government. "I couldn't get to them all."

If a trial takes place, it could open up a public discussion about how the company marketed the drug and whether or not they intentionally hid its dangers. The case has been delayed for six years, as Purdue was able to transfer the case to federal court in New York. A federal appeals court upheld an order to return the suit to Kentucky last year.

Purdue suffered a serious blow last April, when Judge Combs ruled that the company failed to respond to state attorneys' “request for admissions” by the deadline. These requests are a list of plaintiff allegations, and the defendant responds by either admitting or denying each claim. The requests in this cases including allegations that Purdue caused the drug to be overprescribed and caused the state to spend excessive amounts of money as a result of abuse. Since the company missed the deadline, the judge's ruling means that Purdue automatically admits to all the claims.

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