Health and Science

Judge unseals records from Kentucky's OxyContin lawsuit

OxyContin 80 mg pills are shot in the studio on August 1, 2013.
Liz O. Baylen | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

A judge has unsealed records from a Kentucky lawsuit against the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, including the secret testimony of a former company president.

Pike Circuit Court Judge Steven Combs ordered the records be released in 32 days. But Combs said he would delay his order if Purdue Pharma appealed the decision. Richard Silbert, the company's chief litigation counsel, confirmed it would appeal. He declined further comment.

OxyContin is a powerfully addictive prescription painkiller that was marketed for its ability to slowly release its effects over a 12-hour period. The company suggested this long-acting formula made it less addictive and safer for patients. But users quickly found the pill lost its time-release qualities if it was crushed, resulting in an instant high.

In 2006, the company agreed to plead guilty and pay more than $630 million to settle federal charges that it misled doctors and patients about the risks of its top-selling drug. The company released a new version of the drug in 2010 that they said deters abuse.

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Kentucky was particularly affected by the drug, as it was prescribed to many injured coal miners in the eastern part of the state. In 2007, Kentucky's attorney general filed a separate lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. Both sides settled the case in December and the company agreed to pay Kentucky $24 million.

But the lawsuit generated more than 17 million pages of documents, including marketing strategies, training manuals, instructions to sales representatives and testimony from company officials. The records include a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a former Purdue Pharma president and a member of the family that controls the company.

The judge in the case agreed to seal any records Purdue Pharma marked as confidential., a health news website owned by Boston Globe owner John W. Henry, sued to have the records released once the case was resolved. They are particularly interested in Sackler's testimony, as it could reveal how much the company knew about how addictive OxyContin truly is.

Lawyers for Purdue Pharma said the company agreed to hand over documents and give Kentucky's attorneys access to high level company officials because it believed the documents would never be made public. They argued that releasing the documents now would betray that trust and bog down the state's civil court docket.

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But Combs disagreed.

"The Court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves," he wrote.

Rick Berke,'s executive editor, said in a news release that he was pleased the court moved swiftly to "bring to light records that can inform the public's understanding of Purdue's role in this crisis."

OxyContin had global sales of $2.5 billion in 2014, more than any other prescription painkiller. The Sackler family has made numerous philanthropic gifts over years, resulting in art museums that bear that family name at Harvard University and the Smithsonian in Washington.