Maker of painkiller OxyContin loses legal battle to keep lawsuit records secret

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, lost a legal battle Wednesday to keep records and testimony about its bestselling and widely abused painkiller secret.

A judge in Pike County, Kentucky, a region hard-hit by prescription painkiller abuse, granted a motion by a news outlet to unseal records from a lawsuit by the state accusing the company of fraud, conspiracy and negligence in the development and marketing of the drug.

Purdue settled that suit in December for $24 million without any admission of wrongdoing.

Circuit Judge Steven Combs granted the request of Boston Globe-affiliated investigative health news outlet STAT to unseal the documents, writing: "The Court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves."

The judge said the order would not take effect for 32 days, allowing Purdue time to appeal.

"We look forward to appealing this ruling," Purdue lawyer Richard Silbert said in a statement.

The company had argued that the public had no right to see the material, in part because it contained sensitive information about its internal business operations. When patients and others have sued Purdue, the company has sought protective orders prohibiting company documents used as evidence from becoming public.

Among the information Combs ruled should be public is the deposition testimony of Richard Sackler, a former company president and member of the family that owns Purdue. Sackler was questioned under oath in September by lawyers for the Kentucky attorney general's office. A medical doctor, Sackler was involved in the development of OxyContin in the mid-1980s and the marketing of the drug a decade later, according to internal Purdue documents obtained separately by The Times.

When OxyContin addiction became an enormous problem in Appalachia and elsewhere, Sackler met with top company executives about how to respond to concerns about abuse, according to the internal records reviewed by The Times.

In one 1997 email, Sackler suggested to colleagues that insurance companies were using abuse of the drug as an excuse not to foot the bill for the painkiller.

"We should consider that 'addiction' may be a convenient way to just say 'NO,' " he told executives.

A Times investigation published last week found that a fundamental problem with the drug could increase patients' risk of addiction.

Purdue bills OxyContin as a 12-hour drug and encourages doctors to prescribe it only at that interval. But The Times found that Purdue had evidence for decades that the painkiller, a chemical cousin of heroin, wears off early in many patients, exposing them to excruciating symptoms of narcotic withdrawal.

Purdue has disputed The Times' findings and pointed to the FDA's approval of OxyContin as a 12-hour drug.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who filed the initial lawsuit in 2007 when he was the state's attorney general, said Wednesday that the documents would be "vindication" for the many families in the area who have lost loved ones to overdose or addiction.

"I think it would mean a lot. I don't know that it would bring closure," Stumbo said. "I was hoping for a day when Purdue Pharma would have to sit facing a jury."

The state filed the case in Pike County, a rural coal-mining area of 65,000 enveloped by mountains, because it was the "epicenter" of the prescription drug problem in Kentucky, Stumbo said. Nearly every family in the area has someone whose life has been unraveled or cut short by OxyContin or a similar drug, the speaker said, noting that the son of his cousin died of an overdose.

"We're seeing a whole generation of people introduced to opiates by OxyContin, and we're still seeing the aftereffects of it," said Rick Bartley, Pike County's chief prosecutor. "We've lost a whole generation of people here, frankly."

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A version of this article appeared in print on May 12, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Maker of OxyContin loses legal battle" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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