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OxyContin drugmaker seeks to dismiss city's lawsuit

OxyContin drugmaker seeks to dismiss city's lawsuit
Everett, Wash., Mayor Ray Stephanson is suing Purdue Pharma, seeking to hold the maker of OxyContin accountable for damages to his community. (Associated Press)

The manufacturer of the powerful painkiller OxyContin on Tuesday asked a judge to dismiss a novel lawsuit by a city seeking to hold the company financially responsible for a raging opioid epidemic sparked by illicit trafficking.

In a motion filed in federal court in Seattle, attorneys for Purdue Pharma wrote that the suit by Everett, Wash., suffered from "multiple, independent legal failings" — including statute of limitations problems and a failure to demonstrate a close connection between the company's conduct and the criminal acts of drug dealers and addicts.

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"[T]here is no basis in law for a municipality to bring such an action against a pharmaceutical manufacturer," Purdue's lawyers wrote.

Everett, a blue-collar city of 100,000 people on Puget Sound, filed the first-of-its-kind lawsuit in January, prompted by a Times investigation of the company's internal security team.

The newspaper revealed how lawyers, analysts and investigators at Purdue's Connecticut headquarters had worked to identify corrupt physicians and pharmacies colluding with OxyContin traffickers and addicts but, in many cases, did not share the information with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills.

One Los Angeles ring tracked by Purdue and highlighted by The Times supplied large quantities of OxyContin to gang members and other criminals who trafficked the drug to a Crips leader in Everett between 2008 and 2010. That dealer sold the highly addictive pills to low-level dealers, who blanketed the entire region.

Many addicts later switched to heroin, a cheaper opioid.

By the time Purdue shared what it knew about the L.A. ring with law enforcement years later, a million pills had spilled onto the black market, and the ringleaders were under indictment.

Everett claimed in its lawsuit that the heroin crisis gripping the city "is directly attributable" to Purdue's "callous and unconscionable practices." The city said the company should cover the costs of stepped-up policing, drug treatment, homeless outreach and other services — a figure the mayor estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Purdue was successful last month in moving the case from the state courthouse in Everett to federal court, traditionally seen as a more friendly venue for corporations.

In the dismissal request Tuesday, company attorneys wrote that even if U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez accepted all of Everett's allegations as true, the case still was legally defective and should be thrown out.

Everett lacked standing to sue, the lawyers wrote, in part because the U.S. Justice Department is responsible for enforcing federal law governing narcotics manufacturers. Allowing other parties to go after drug companies would "create disarray with respect to the federal regulatory framework governing prescription medications," they wrote.

In addition, Purdue's lawyers said that Everett should be barred from seeking damages because OxyContin trafficking into the city had occurred outside the four-year statute of limitations for consumer protection violations alleged by the city.

They also contended that the role Everett accused Purdue of playing in criminal trafficking was too removed for the company to pay the city's costs. A whole range of other parties, from wholesalers to pharmacists to traffickers to street dealers to addicts, also were part of the chain, they noted.

"Simply put, this theory of causation is, as a matter of law, too attenuated and remote to meet the legal requirements of proximate cause," they wrote.

They also argued that the suit was flawed because law enforcement, aware that black-market OxyContin was a problem, had been investigating the L.A. ring and the Everett Crips leader during some of the years in question.

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As The Times reported last year, the company's security team possessed a trove of highly detailed evidence of illicit OxyContin sales — including prescribing data, pharmacy sales records, field reports and surveillance information — that allowed Purdue to quickly identify problems.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents who helped bring down the L.A. ring and local investigators in Everett who arrested the gang leader there did not have that information and told the paper it would have aided their work.

In a statement, an Everett spokeswoman said officials "look forward to presenting our arguments to the court refuting Purdue's position."

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