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Opioid Lawsuit 'Oversimplifies the Problem,' Rules North Dakota Judge

A lawsuit filed on behalf of North Dakota that aimed to hold big pharma accountable for the impact of the opioid epidemic has been dismissed by a Burleigh County District Court Judge.

A gavel hitting pills.
By Tess Williams

A lawsuit filed on behalf of North Dakota that aimed to hold big pharma accountable for the impact of the opioid epidemic has been dismissed by a Burleigh County District Court Judge.

The lawsuit, filed a year ago by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, claimed Purdue Pharma L.P. spurred the opioid epidemic through "an aggressive and successful marketing campaign designed to persuade prescribers and patients that opioids can and should be used for chronic pain." The company exclusively produces opioids and created OxyContin.

The state sought to recover fees associated with opioid abuse, which has skyrocketed in the last few decades. The opioid crisis will have lasting effects on medical services, law enforcement, corrections, workers' compensation, diversion programs, prosecution, probation, treatment and child welfare, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, doctors began more frequently prescribing opioids during the '90s after pharmaceutical companies falsely claimed the pain relievers were not addictive. The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in 2017 to address widespread misuse and overdose deaths associated with the drugs.

About 130 people die daily across the nation from opioid-related drug overdoses, DHHS reports. In North Dakota, opioid overdose deaths increased from 11 in 2013 to 54 in 2016, the lawsuit said.

Burleigh County District Judge James Hill explained the reasons for dismissing the case in a 27-page order that said "Purdue has no control over its product after it is sold to distributors, then to pharmacies, and then prescribed to customers."

"The state's effort to hold one company to account for this entire, complex public health issue oversimplifies the problem," Hill wrote.

The lawsuit alleged Purdue violated the state's consumer fraud law through deceptive practices and unconscionable practices. In his decision, Hill said Purdue's marketing and promotion were allowed because the drugs were FDA approved and followed marketing procedures.

"The court's ruling in the area of consumer protection law has much broader implications than just this one significant case, potentially negatively affecting long-standing consumer protection law in North Dakota," Stenehjem said. "I am confident that the State has strong claims against these defendants, whose unconscionable actions demand they be held accountable, and there are well-reasoned arguments that support our position."

Stenehjem said in a statement he plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court because the ruling differs from decisions made about similar allegations across the country.

"We disagree with the Court's interpretation of the state's claims and applicable law in numerous key areas," he said.

Numerous states, cities, counties and Native American tribes also sued Purdue Pharma and other companies. Purdue reached a $270 million settlement in March with the state of Oklahoma and avoided a televised trial.

Lawsuits brought by the city of Grand Forks, Cass County and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were transferred last month to a district court in northern Ohio, which is handling more 1,400 civil cases against pharmaceutical companies that produce and sell opioids. Those lawsuits appear to still be active.

(c)2019 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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