The state of Wyoming asked a judge earlier this month to allow a lawsuit against a major opioid manufacturer to continue, pushing back on claims by the drug maker that a federal agency supported the company’s actions and nullified the state’s allegations.
The state’s litigation is simultaneously separated from and a part of a wave of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company most well known for selling OxyContin and which is often blamed by critics for sparking the opioid crisis. While Wyoming’s lawsuit is isolated to state court in Cheyenne, federal cases have been filed against Purdue and similar pharma companies by dozens of municipalities and governmental entities from across the country — including Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho Tribe, Carbon County and the city of Casper.
Those federal cases have been combined in the short term to an Ohio federal court, lawyers previously told the Star-Tribune. But any cases filed by Wyoming entities that go to trial will do so in the Equality State.
Broadly, these lawsuits — including Wyoming’s — accuse Purdue and other manufacturers and sellers of opioids of deceptive practices to push the painkillers. These practices, as alleged by the litigation, included misleading the public about the addictive properties of drugs like OxyContin while targeting vulnerable groups, like the elderly.
Wyoming’s lawsuit, a 115-page complaint filed last year, makes similar accusations. As a result of these allegedly deceptive practices and their efficacy, Purdue sold 16 million pills between 2001 and 2017, the suit alleges.
But Purdue has broadly pushed back against those claims across the country, and in October the company asked a Wyoming judge to dismiss the state’s lawsuit. The company, via Cheyenne attorneys Richard Mincer and Erin Berry, alleged that the Food and Drug Administration had approved opioid use to treat chronic pain. The company denied that the its acts were misleading and claimed that the state was attempting to undermine the federal agency.
But in its response, filed earlier this month, the Attorney General’s Office rejected Purdue’s defense. In its 57-page filing asking the judge to deny Purdue’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, the state pointed out that the FDA approving opioids to treat pain did not give Purdue authority to mislead consumers, as the state alleges.
“Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss correctly asserts that the FDA has approved the sale of opioids to treat certain types of pain,” the state alleges. “However, this does not amount to permission to engage in the specific unfair and deceptive trade conduct alleged by the State.”
Messages left for the state Attorney General’s Office, which is currently undergoing personnel changes under the new Gordon administration, were not returned Wednesday. Mincer, Purdue’s attorney, declined to comment beyond pointing to the company’s previous court filings, though he said the company would file a response as early as Thursday.
The state further alleges that Purdue went beyond the labeling on opioid bottles, which the company had previously attached to its motion to dismiss. Indeed, the state claims, those bottles indicated risks to using the drugs that were not present in advertising or practices used to push the pills.
“While the FDA has approved Defendants’ drugs as treatments ‘for management of pain severe enough to require around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate,’” the state claimed, “Defendants’ advertising conduct went far beyond this approved use.”
Indeed, the state alleges, while Purdue advertised its opioids as improving quality of life and should be used as a first-line treatment, its own labels mentioned no such benefits but instead listed concerns, “including addiction, overdose, fatal respiratory depression, sleepiness, dizziness, and lightheadedness.” To support the allegation, the state cited Purdue’s own labeling that was included in the company’s previous filing.