Five states announced Thursday that they would sue Purdue Pharma and a member of the Sackler family that controls the drug company, accusing them of deceptively pushing powerful painkillers and misrepresenting the drugs’ safety as they sparked the opioid crisis.
Attorneys general of West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin will file lawsuits. It was not immediately clear which states were targeting Richard Sackler, the former president of the company, as well as the company itself.
In a news conference, West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morriseysaid his state was seeking to hold both the company and Sacklers responsible for deaths and other harms from the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
“Even when it became apparent that thousands of people were dying of opioid abuse, Purdue doubled down by continuing its relentless and deceptive campaign” to persuade doctors to write prescriptions for its powerful narcotic, OxyContin, Morrisey said.
At least thirty-six other states have sued companies involved in manufacturing, distributing and dispensing opioids. About 1,600 cities, counties, Native American tribes and others have also filed claims that have been consolidated in an enormous federal lawsuit in Cleveland.
Morrisey said his state’s lawsuit would be filed there, but some of the other states would join the large “multidistrict litigation” in Ohio.
Spokesmen for Purdue and Sackler did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday morning.
In March, Purdue agreed to a $270 million out-of-court settlement with the state of Oklahoma, where the company faced its first trial on these issues at the end of May. Some of that money will be paid by members of the Sackler family.
Last week, Purdue won a victory in state court when a North Dakota judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit against Purdue.
Purdue’s president and chief executive, Craig Landau, said in March that declaring bankruptcy is an option the company might have to explore if jury verdicts or settlements become too costly.
Overdoses caused by opioids are responsible for more than 400,000 deaths since 1999, with about half from prescription narcotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thursday’s announcement came a day after New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art became the latest cultural institution to say it would no longer accept donations from members of the Sackler family, who are major philanthropists to art museums and educational institutions.
The legal actions add to the list of states seeking compensation for the deaths and damage from the two-decade old drug crisis that began after Purdue introduced its powerful painkiller, OxyContin, in 1996, and aggressively promoted the drug to physicians for a wide variety of aches and pains.
In documents released in February as part of its lawsuit, Massachusetts alleged that members of the Sackler family directed sales representatives to push extremely high doses of the drug.
The state’s attorney general, Maura Healy accused the company of engaging in frequent acts of deception and misconduct to make as much money as possible, even as OxyContin launched the crisis and its toll of addiction and death. In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, lawyers for members of the Sackler family said Healey’s lawsuit contains “misleading and inflammatory allegations” and takes internal company emails out of context.
New York also has targeted the Sackler family in its lawsuit.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading doctors, regulators and the public about the dangers of the drug and collectively paid $635 million in fines.
Morrisey noted that West Virginia had previously sued Purdue in 2001, recouping $10 million in a settlement with the company. But he said the state was legally entitled to pursue the company again because it had not changed its practices.
He promised to “get as much as we possibly can for the state of West Virginia,” which, he said, had suffered “far too much senseless death” and “many ruined lives.”