STAT filed a motion in March to unseal the records in Pike Circuit Court in Kentucky. They include the deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a former president of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and a member of the family that owns the privately held Connecticut company.
OxyContin has been blamed by many for helping to ignite the scourge of opioid abuse in the United States that began with prescription painkillers and has progressed to heroin and fentanyl.
“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,” Judge Steven Combs said in his ruling.
He ordered that the documents be unsealed in 32 days, which would be June 12. He said he would stay the release of the records if any party files an appeal before then.
“The national opioid epidemic is killing 30,000 people a year, and we are pleased that the court moved so swiftly to bring to light records that can inform the public’s understanding of Purdue’s role in this crisis,” said Rick Berke, STAT’s executive editor. “We see pursuit of this story as integral to STAT’s central mission to hold institutions and individuals accountable.”
Purdue’s chief litigation counsel, Richard Silbert, said in a statement, “We look forward to appealing this ruling.”
Combs said several factors weighed in favor of disclosing the records, including the fact that the state of Kentucky received $24 million from Purdue last December to settle its 2007 lawsuit against the company over the allegedly illegal promotion of OxyContin.
“The public interest in accessing the materials used to make the decision to settle is more than minimal,” he wrote. Combs added that the material sought by STAT may have played a role in the decision to settle, and therefore “militates in favor of public access.”
STAT was represented in the case by Jeremy Rogers of Dinsmore & Shohl in Louisville, Ky. “We think it is the correct ruling,” he said. “Openness is vitally important, particularly in this case.”
In the Kentucky case, 17 million pages of documents were produced during the litigation. As part of the settlement agreement, the Kentucky attorney general destroyed its copies of documents provided by Purdue. STAT learned that other copies of several key documents, including the Sackler deposition, were filed under seal at the Pike County court in Pikeville, Ky.
Purdue’s lawyers argued in a hearing before Combs on May 6 that releasing the records would be unfair because the documents were produced as part of a protective order agreed to by the state attorney general. That order, the lawyers said, allowed for the quick and confidential exchange of records.
15 years of overdose deaths in the US
Explore the interactive visualization below to learn more about overdose deaths caused by narcotics and hallucinogens from 1999 to 2014. The vertical axis shows the number of people who died from a drug-related overdose in a year. The colored bands represent different types of drugs. "Other opioids" include morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. The "other synthetic narcotics" category includes fentanyl, propoxyphene, and meperidine. Click on the colored bands to see the data broken down by drug type. Click on the arrows above the chart or the age groups at the bottom to see the data broken down by age.
The Kentucky attorney general, in a filing with the court last week, said the state of Kentucky would take no position on the release of the documents. After the ruling, Deputy Attorney General Mitchel Denham said his office would not appeal the order.
“We are proud that we recovered $24 million for citizens of Kentucky,” he said. “That is 50 times what Purdue initially offered us. That money is now going to drug treatment centers throughout Kentucky to help combat this horrible opioid epidemic.”
Purdue contended that the deposition of Sackler, who is also a company board member, played no role in how the lawsuit was settled.
The deposition of Sackler, taken last year in Kentucky, is believed to be the only time a member of the family that owns Purdue has been questioned under oath about the marketing of OxyContin and the addictive properties of the pain reliever.
The Sackler family, which has reaped billions of dollars in profits from the sale of OxyContin since the drug’s launch in 1995, is better known for its philanthropy. The Sackler name is affixed to museums, hospitals, and institutes across the world.
In addition to the deposition of Sackler, the sealed documents include “numerous motions and exhibits,” according to the Kentucky attorney general’s office.
Combs directed the court clerk to remove from the documents any personal information, such as Social Security numbers and addresses, before releasing them to the public. He wrote that this would protect any privacy interests of people referenced in the sealed documents.