OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma on Friday sought to minimize its role both in the opioid addiction crisis and as a player in the painkiller industry as it asked a Massachusetts judge to dismiss a lawsuit from the state.
The state alleges the company’s deceptive marketing of its drugs spawned the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts, but a lawyer for the company pushed back against that claim.
“The notion that Purdue has created this epidemic is a serious misperception,” attorney Timothy Blank argued for Purdue.
The arguments in Suffolk County Superior Court are the latest turn in Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit against Purdue, members of the Sackler family, who control the company, and executives and board members.
Judge Janet Sanders did not rule on any of the defendants’ motions to dismiss from the bench, and said that reviewing all the submissions from all the parties would take some time.
Outside the courthouse, dozens of relatives of overdose victims held a somber protest to keep the focus on the human toll of the opioid crisis.
Before February 2018, when his son overdosed on fentanyl, Gary Carter thought the worst was over after a yearslong habit of self-medicating to soothe recovery from knee surgeries and flare-ups of an autoimmune disease.
Bryant Carter, 25, was engaged and had a baby on the way.
“We were in the process of planning his wedding,” Gary Carter, of Maynard, said, his eyes turning glassy as he stared mournfully at an enlarged image of Bryant. “Instead, we were planning his funeral.”
Massachusetts filed its lawsuit in June 2018, alleging that the company, the Sacklers, and executives misled the public about the risks of its drugs as it flooded communities with opioids, both contributing to overdose deaths and seeding a broader addiction crisis that has metastasized into one driven by illegal drugs.
It is one of some 2,000 lawsuits related to the roots of the addiction crisis from states, local governments, and tribes, most of which have been consolidated into a so-called multidistrict litigation in federal court in Ohio.
In arguing for dismissal Friday, lawyers for the individual defendants sought to distance their clients from any alleged corporate misbehavior — noting the limited years of their tenures and downplaying their influence over company-wide actions — and questioned whether board members and executives of a national company could be pulled into one state’s lawsuit. They told the judge that the state was lumping its allegations together and throwing them at an array of defendants, a lack of specificity that was leading to errors and false accusations.
Gregory Joseph, a lawyer representing 13 mostly former board members, including eight Sacklers, said that the state’s claim is based on the theory that board members green-lighted deceptive marketing strategies and aimed them at Massachusetts. But he argued that there was no evidence included in the lawsuit that showed the board approving marketing materials or demonstrating that they targeted Massachusetts.
“The board never met here, they never directed marketing at Massachusetts,” Joseph said.
Assistant Attorney General Sydenham Alexander sought to counter some of Purdue’s claims. He cited a 2017 note from CEO Craig Landau included in the lawsuit that outlines how “too many Rxs being written / too high a dose / for too long” caused the opioid crisis.
“These defendants were behind each one of those dangers,” Alexander said.
Alexander also pushed back on Purdue’s claims that it represented just a sliver of the prescription opioid market. The company pushed the highest — and most dangerous — dosages, Alexander said, because they were the most profitable.
“All those prescriptions are not equal,” he said.
The Massachusetts lawsuit has garnered national attention. Its complaint, fully released earlier this year, relied on internal Purdue emails and reports to pull back the curtain on activity at the company, seeming to portray it as devoted to profits and certain members of the Sackler family as intimately involved and disparaging of people who had become addicted to opioids.
During the hearing, Judge Sanders asked Joseph, the lawyer representing board members including the Sacklers, about situations cited in the complaint that depicted certain family members, namely Dr. Richard Sackler, as a micromanager.
“What about Richard Sackler, what about Kathe Sackler, what about Mortimer Sackler?” Sanders asked.
Joseph said that asking about budget numbers or returns on investment for new initiatives were appropriate conduct for any board member. He also cited an e-mail included in the complaint from Russell Gasdia, formerly Purdue’s vice president of sales and marketing, asking the CEO to get Richard Sackler to leave the sales force alone as a demonstration that he was separate from the company staff and their actions.
Sanders countered, however, that the e-mail could be construed to suggest that Richard Sackler was trying to assert control over the day-to-day operations of the company.
“The Sacklers’ reputation has been severely harmed by the distortions in this complaint,” Joseph said.
Standing on the steps of the courthouse, Carol Lorento said she cried while pasting photos of her son, Derek, and his two good friends on a rectangular poster. But, Lorento, 59, was careful not to shed tears on their faces, she said, to avoid smudging the message scrawled in looping purple script: “They should still be here with us!! They never should have suffered!!”
She recently adopted her 7-year-old grandson, who knows “Dada” is in heaven — but not much else, not how a 13-year “battle” began with a painkiller prescription for a broken arm in high school.
“Derek fought really hard, but there was never enough treatment,” Lorento said. “The final demise for my son was the pain and humiliation.”