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Crime and Courts

Colorado expands lawsuit against opioid-maker Purdue Pharma to include its owners, the Sackler family

Attorney General Phil Weiser says the move will allow the state to use new consumer protection laws, which could mean stiffer penalties and ease the state’s burden of proof

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Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Monday announced that he is expanding the state’s lawsuit against opioid-manufacturer Purdue Pharma to include the pharmaceutical giant’s owners, the billionaire Sackler family, and a list of company executives.

The move will allow state lawyers to put to use Colorado’s new consumer protection laws that raised the size of the penalties that can be levied against a company found to have acted inappropriately. The new policies also make it easier to prove in state court that a company has committed wrongdoing.

MORE: The inside story of how one opioid company spread millions of pain pills around Colorado, according to a newly unsealed court document

The lawsuit against Purdue was initiated last year by Weiser’s predecessor, Cynthia Coffman, amid hundreds of drug-related overdoses in Colorado and as officials statewide are working to stem the tide of addiction. Weiser has pledged to use any money received as part of the case’s outcome to fund those efforts. 

Purdue is the maker of the popular and potent prescription opioid brand OxyContin. Experts have tied the explosion of prescription painkiller use to igniting the U.S. opioid epidemic as pill users switched to heroin.

“The actions of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma included sharing studies that they knew were misleading, claiming that this was an effective, long-term treatment that didn’t give rise to risks of addiction,” Weiser told reporters at a news conference Monday. “Those claims were verifiably false and ignored expert warnings. And they even undermined studies suggesting that there were addictive effects.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, speaks at a news conference in March 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The defendants added to the lawsuit under the expanded lawsuit include the additional companies Purdue Pharma L.P., Purdue Pharma Inc., Rhodes Pharmaceuticals L.P. and MNP Consulting Limited.

The individuals now being targeted by the lawsuit include: Richard Sackler; Mortimer D.A. Sackler; Jonathan Sackler; Kathe Sackler; Ilene Sackler Lefcourt; Beverly Sackler; Theresa Sackler; and David Sackler. Also now included are current and former Purdue executives Russell Gasdia, Mark Timney, Craig Landau and James David Haddox. 

Landau is Purdue’s current president and CEO. 

“Purdue Pharma executives and the company need to be held accountable for a crisis that they helped to fuel and profit from,” Weiser said. 

The amended lawsuit has been sealed under the terms of an agreement between the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and Purdue, so Weiser declined to go into details about how the new defendants were tied to the case. He said he is working to open the case for public view.  

“I can’t go into too much detail, but I can say that we are confident that the Sackler family has acted in a way that has specifically hurt Colorado and Coloradans and that justifies them being named in the complaint,” Weiser said.

Other states that have sued Purdue have also targeted the Sackler family for their alleged role in the opioid crisis. The family has fiercely denied those accusations and distanced themselves from both Purdue and OxyContin

Purdue, meanwhile, is reportedly struggling amid a wave of lawsuits filed by states, counties and cities hard hit by the opioid crisis. 

In March, the company settled a lawsuit with Oklahoma for $270 million. In 2015, the company settled with Kentucky for $24 million. In 2007, the company agreed to a $630 million deal with the U.S. Department of Justice and admitted to falsely marketing OxyContin as less addictive than competing drugs.

MORE: The opioid crisis is breaking hearts in Colorado — and that’s forcing doctors to make tough choices

 “Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations contained in litigation against the company and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks,” the company said in a written statement Monday. “These sensationalized claims are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system, as plaintiffs are unable to connect the conduct alleged to the harm described. Instead, they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories, which if adopted by courts, will undermine the bedrock legal principle of causation.”

Purdue added that it believes that “no pharmaceutical manufacturer has done more to address the opioid addiction crisis than Purdue.”

Southeast Health Group CEO JC Carrica said his southeastern Colorado clinics, which provide mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as primary care, are seeing increasing numbers of patients seeking treatment related to opioids.

“What I can tell you is we are seeing more and more patients,” he said Monday during Weiser’s news conference. “As we’re starting to control the use of opioid medication, patients are still in pain they’re still in need of service. As the prescriptions are withdrawn for them, we’re seeing people come in for solutions or options. Sometimes they are coming into mental health centers trying to get pain medication because their doctors no longer prescribe.”

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