Purdue Pharma, maker of the drug Oxycontin, is a tough opponent in court. The multibillion dollar pharmaceutical company has won over 400 personal injury lawsuits and crushed more than 10 class action lawsuits brought against the infamous painkiller. But Purdue had never gone to trial for Oxycontin abuse until now. The drug maker has been accused of “laying waste” to Eastern Kentucky, including the small Appalachian coal town of Pikeville. The price: $1 billion plus punitive damages.
Known as “hillbilly heroin” for its popularity in rural areas of the US, Oxycontin is a potent opioid that promises 12 hours of pain relief. Because of its time-release mechanism, a pill contains more active ingredient than other drugs. When the drug was first released in the mid 1990s, it didn’t take long before drug abusers learned that crushing and snorting or injecting the opioid negates the time-release effects and delivers a fast and powerful high. By 2001, Oxycontin sales soared at over $1 billion.
The suit has been slow moving, with Purdue scrambling to get the case moved out of Kentucky for the past six years. Though they’ve won civil suits in the past, the company argues there’s no hope for a fair trial in the drug-ravaged Pike County. Kentucky is one of the top five states with the highest painkiller prescription rate, and its residents, 40% of whom claim to know at least one person facing legal trouble from Oxycontin abuse, are eager to hold the company accountable for the crime spree initiated by the drug.
Court documents also detail how Oxycontin abusers ended up in prison, rehab or the nearest funeral home while trying to appease their habits. “It was the Wild West,” says Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who noted that half of the pharmacies in Pike County have bulletproof glass because of the frenzy of abuse.
Purdue denies all allegations of Medicaid fraud and false advertising, but the civil suit claims that the pharmaceutical company advised its sales team to sell the drug as non-abuse forming and mislead physicians. The suit also claims that that drug researchers were well aware that crushing the drug unearths the active ingredient. Other lawsuits against Purdue and opioid manufacturers have been filed this year in Illinois and California, and it is likely that the Kentucky civil suit might trigger an onslaught of litigation against pharmaceutical companies reminiscent of the war against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
If the civil suit is successful, it won’t be the first time that Purdue has paid out for misleading users. In 2007, executives pleaded guilty for branding the drug as less addictive when compared to other narcotics, and it cost the company a total of $634 million in fines. Purdue’s CFO, Edward Mahony, said in an affidavit that a $1 billion judgment would cripple the company’s operations and future.
Purdue executives have argued that they’ve taken “extraordinary measures” to reduce Oxycontin abuse. In 2010, the company released a version of the painkiller less resistant to tampering, but research has found the users simply switched to heroin instead. A 2013 study found that almost four out of five people who use heroin started with prescription painkillers.
In addition to seeking restitution for the hefty price tag of drug abuse, the civil suit against Purdue will attempt to prevent misleading information about Oxycontin and similar drugs from reaching physicians who prescribe the medication in the future. As the trial inches forward, possibly beginning as early as next year, Attorney General Conway says that the only way the drug company can escape a Kentucky courtroom is a “very, very significant” settlement.