Fifteen years after West Virginia reached a settlement with the manufacturer of the opioid OxyContin, the state is once again suing the manufacturer of the powerful prescription painkiller.
The 2004 settlement, for $10 million, was meant to protect Purdue Pharma from another lawsuit by West Virginia. But West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office is alleging in his lawsuit, filed Thursday in Boone County Circuit Court, that because Purdue reformulated OxyContin in 2010, the state can sue again.
Citing several studies, Morrisey’s office is alleging that when Purdue reformulated OxyContin to be less easily crushed, it spurred a switch to the street drug heroin in West Virginia.
“There were provisions in that settlement that we had to look at very closely and some may argue that we’re precluded from bringing a lawsuit,” Morrisey said Thursday, during a news conference at Brian’s Safehouse in Beckley.
“We don’t believe that’s the case — we believe we have strong claims based upon the fact that there was a new drug product that came into effect back in 2010.”
With 568 drug overdoses that year, according to DHHR, West Virginia became the state with the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
Of those, 223 were related to oxycodone, a generic name for the active ingredient in OxyContin, and 88 were associated with heroin or fentanyl.
By 2017, the state still had the highest drug overdose death rate, with 1,012 deaths, but 861 were related to heroin or fentanyl.
West Virginia filed its lawsuit, against Purdue and Richard Sackler, a medical doctor who formerly served as president and member of the company’s board of directors, simultaneously with Iowa, Kansas, Maryland and Wisconsin, according to a press release.
Morrisey’s office alleges that Purdue knowingly misled health care providers about the addictive nature of OxyContin, its highest-selling and most-profitable drug, and pressured sales agents to aggressively push the drug, especially to providers they knew had high prescribing rates.
“Historically, opioids were prescribed in limited circumstances due to long-standing and well-founded fears about their addictive potential and safety. Then came Purdue,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asserts that Purdue trained new marketing employees with the advertising motto, “We sell hope in a bottle.”
Keith Humphreys, a West Virginia native and Stanford University professor who has advised both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush on drug policy, said that more lawsuits against drug companies have occurred nationwide as more facts come out in similar cases, and because “people smelled the blood in the water.”
According to the Washington Post, 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, including many municipalities in West Virginia, have filed claims that have been consolidated in a federal lawsuit in Cleveland.
And following a similar lawsuit, Oklahoma reached a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma in March.
“It’s getting increasingly obvious that Purdue and the family, particularly, knew exactly what was going on so each one of these cases strengthens the potential cases of others,” Humphreys said.
Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and an addiction researcher at Stanford, said he has also noticed a shift toward suing the Sackler family, which he said “makes sense, because at some point, Purdue’s going to go bankrupt.”
“And you don’t want the Sackler family to just basically pocket all their billions and say, ‘That’s too bad what happened to that company,’ as if that company wasn’t them.”
In an emailed statement, Robert Josephson, spokesman for Purdue, noted that a North Dakota judge recently dismissed a similar case, saying the state couldn’t prove a causal link to the opioid epidemic.
He also noted that healthcare providers must be licensed to prescribe opioids, that most opioid prescriptions are not for OxyContin, and that OxyContin comes with a black box warning.
“These complaints are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” he said. “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.”
Earlier this month, Morrisey also announced a $37 million settlement with McKesson, a drug distributor, after alleging in a lawsuit that the company was negligent in monitoring pain pill shipments.
“I think it’s important when dollars are available — people need help now,” he said Thursday. “I bet the people that are struggling, looking for recovery, they don’t want to wait five or seven years. We don’t know how long litigation will take.”
Morrisey, who the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in 2016 was the only West Virginia candidate to receive the maximum $1,000 campaign contribution from Purdue Pharma, said during the press conference that a team of people works on opioid issues in his office.
His spokesman didn’t respond to a request for further comment on how involved he’ll be with the case.
Wendy Holdren contributed to this report.