OxyContin Makers Face Lawsuit for Liability of Kentucky Drug Abusers
By Gerri Elder
Though it has not taken the hardnosed, stubborn approach of fighting thousands of individual lawsuits like its fellow drug manufacturer Merck for issues caused by the drug Vioxx, Purdue Pharma and its problem drug, OxyContin, have been undergoing legal troubles for the better part of this year.
In the most recent development, officials from several counties in the state of Kentucky have filed lawsuits against Purdue because of widespread Oxycontin abuse in the state. The lawsuit alleges that abusers of the drug that the company misbranded as a safe, non-addictive drug have filled state jails and state-run substance abuse treatment centers.
The counties involved in the suit are located in the eastern part of the state near the Appalachian Mountains, where locals have come to calling the drug "hillbilly heroin."
According to the Kentucky Attorney general, Greg Stumbo, the introduction of OxyContin on the market in 1995 paralleled a dramatic rise in addictions and crime related to the drug. Social costs involved in treatment of abusers and addicts rose in equally dramatic fashion.
As a result, lawyers for Pike County and other two other Kentucky counties have filed the class-action lawsuit, and reports have established that around 20 more counties are interested in joining the suit, which seeks millions in compensatory and punitive damages.
In May of this year, Purdue Pharma executives offered plea agreements in which they admitted to knowingly misrepresenting the addictive effects of OxyContin to physicians and patients in advertising campaigns for the narcotic painkiller.
The plea agreement resulted in a judgment of $634.5 million in civil liability and penalties from a federal court, in addition to $19.5 million to states for deceptive promotional practices. Payments to each of the individual states have been trickling throughout this fall.
OxyContin has is a time-release version of the drug oxycodone, an opiate alkaloid that is a minor component of opium. When combined with acetaminophen, oxycodone becomes the painkiller Percocet, often used for post-operation pain relief.
However, unlike Percocet, whose acetaminophen content lessens the effects of the oxycodone component, OxyContin contains only filler and therefore can be crushed and introduced into the body intravenously or in other ways to receive its effects rapidly.
The rise in addiction and crime related to OxyContin in Kentucky was not an isolated occurrence by any means. The lawsuit settled earlier in May of this year featured 46 states who felt the effects of the deception practiced by the executives at Purdue.
Purdue Pharma promised that it would fight the Kentucky counties' lawsuit, claiming that it is not responsible for individuals' abuse: "Courts have repeatedly dismissed individuals' claims that Purdue Pharma was responsible for those individuals' own abuse and injuries resulting from it. We will defend this lawsuit vigorously and we expect to prevail," the company said in a statement.
However, the severity of issues at stake in the case of any public outcry over defective drugs means that lawsuits and claims against the manufacturer never go away quickly or quietly. Even if Purdue manages to prevail in this Kentucky OxyContin case, it's almost certain that they will face further legal action into the foreseeable future.