Connecticut lawsuit highlights pressure on Purdue Pharma

December 21, 2018

Connecticut has become the 20th state to sue OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, and it might not be the last.

The state’s complaint alleging that Purdue fraudulently marketed opioids such as OxyContin, by misrepresenting their risks and benefits, reflects the growing wave of litigation against the Stamford company. It also shows the increasing likelihood of the firm having to reach a comprehensive settlement with the plaintiffs to staunch the inundation.

“Lawsuits, to some degree, rely on the court of public opinion, and there has been such a significant backlash about what Purdue knew, when they knew it, and the deaths resulting from the opioid crisis,” said Angela Mattie, a professor in the schools of business and medicine at Quinnipiac University. “It’s probably the most significant public health problem we’re facing right now.”

Purdue officials could not be reached Friday for comment. A company spokesman earlier this week denied the lawsuit’s allegations, but said the company wanted to “continue to work collaboratively” with state Attorney General George Jepsen.

Discussions, then legal action

Since 2016, Jepsen’s office has tackled the epidemic of opioid abuse as part of a 42-state investigation of Purdue and six other pharmaceutical firms. Jepsen is one of the leaders of the coalition.

In an interview in October, Jepsen said his team had held extensive talks with Purdue officials.

“We absolutely have their attention, which is what we need and want,” Jepsen said. “We could make a show of filing a lawsuit and devote very significant staff resources to bringing a lawsuit. We’re very comfortable with the position we’re in right now, (but) always keeping, if settlement talks fail, the option of filing a suit.”

But Jepsen subsequently grew more pessimistic about the company’s willingness to negotiate.

“Purdue Pharma, however, has not demonstrated to me that it is serious about addressing the states’ very real allegations of misconduct and coming to a meaningful settlement,” Jepsen said Thursday. “It is my hope that, in filing this lawsuit at this time, Connecticut can assist in the collective effort to hold this company and responsible individuals accountable.”

While it has sued, Connecticut will remain in the interstate alliance.

Jepsen will hand off the lawsuit next month to successor and fellow Democrat William Tong, a state representative whose district includes parts of Stamford and Darien, who was elected last month. Tong could not be reached Friday for comment.

In an interview before he was elected, Tong said he wanted to keep Connecticut in the interstate alliance, but he would keep litigation on the table.

“Because of how it has affected people in our state — and it’s a crisis in every community here in Connecticut — and because we have Purdue Pharma in Connecticut, we have an obligation to have a very critical eye on this whole crisis,” Tong said.

More than 20 southwestern Connecticut municipalities have also sued. The list includes Bridgeport, Danbury, New Haven and Norwalk.

The city of Stamford has not filed a lawsuit. Mayor David Martin’s office has said it has not ruled out legal action.

Purdue also faces an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

A DOJ spokesman declined to comment Friday.

Widespread litigation

The hundreds of other lawsuits filed in recent years by local and state governments largely parallel the allegations in the Connecticut complaint. They accuse Purdue of years of false or fraudulent marketing that distort the impact of treating chronic, non-cancer pain with its opioids.

In total, the company faces more than 1,000 active lawsuits from cities, counties and states.

Other states that have sued this year include Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Texas.

“It appears more cities and states will file complaints,” said Robert Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. “Purdue is far from the only factor that influences the opioid crisis, but their role is now public enough that their impact in the crisis is perceived as significant.”

In statements, Purdue has denied the other lawsuits’ accusations and said it is committed to tackling the causes of opioid addiction and misuse.

The company’s initiatives include allocating $2 million to support prescription-drug education for several thousand high school students around the country. The total includes $500,000 for the program’s expansion in Connecticut during the next two years.

To help manage the proliferation of lawsuits, a Cleveland-based federal judge, Dan Polster, is overseeing hundreds of complaints filed by municipal and county governments in a process known as “Multidistrict Litigation.” A comprehensive settlement — which would probably be reached through the MDL proceedings — could take several more months, even years, to finalize.

“These defendants need ‘eternal peace,’” Paul Hanly, co-lead counsel for the MDL plaintiffs, said in a recent interview. “That’s why this settlement is incredibly complex … because it has to be completely buttoned up. Otherwise, if there’s an escape hatch, the companies are presumably paying all this money to get sued, maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps a year from now, or three years from now.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott

Update hourly