STAT urged the Kentucky Court of Appeals to uphold a judge’s decision to unseal records filed in a lawsuit over the marketing of the painkiller OxyContin, arguing in a brief filed Wednesday that state law clearly allows for public access to the documents.
OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma is challenging Pikeville Circuit Court Judge Steven D. Combs’s May order unsealing records filed in a lawsuit brought by the commonwealth of Kentucky against Purdue. The judge stayed his order to allow for an appeal of his decision.
The state alleged Purdue falsely promoted the potent opioid as less addictive than other medications, leading to widespread abuse of OxyContin and accompanying drug-related crime. The ruling by Combs came after STAT intervened in the case and requested the public release of records filed under seal. The records include a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a member of the family that owns Purdue, and documents concerning OxyContin marketing practices.
The STAT brief contends that Combs’s decision is based on “well-settled law” and that judges in Kentucky are given “tremendous deference” when it comes to decisions regarding public access to court records. In fact, no appeals court in the state has ever ruled that a trial court abused its discretion by allowing public access to court records, according to the brief.
“Court records can be sealed only in limited circumstances, for specific reasons, and only upon a sufficient showing by the party seeking closure,” according to the STAT filing. “Here, instead of making any such showing, Purdue attempted to unilaterally ‘seal’ the records by making the unsupported claim that they are ‘confidential.’ Yet, Purdue does not get to decide what documents in the trial court’s file are available to the public. That is the trial court’s decision.”
In its own brief filed with the appeals court last month, Purdue argued that the judge made several mistakes in his ruling and his decision should be overturned.
In addition to the Sackler deposition, the documents include Purdue marketing strategies and internal emails about them; documents concerning internal analyses of clinical trials; settlement communications from an earlier criminal case regarding the marketing of OxyContin; and information regarding sales representatives marketing the drug, according to Purdue’s brief.
The STAT brief also argues there is intense public interest in the case that justifies the release of the records.
“The elected Attorney General brought this case on behalf of all citizens of Kentucky against a large pharmaceutical company for its criminal marketing of a drug that contributed to an addiction epidemic that has ravaged the Commonwealth,” the brief states. The case was settled last December when Purdue agreed to pay the state $24 million — money now being spent on addiction treatment and other programs related to opioid abuse.
In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge of misbranding OxyContin in an effort to mislead doctors and consumers. The company paid more than $600 million in fines.
Purdue requested the appeals court hold a hearing on the matter, something STAT argued in its brief was unnecessary. A panel of three judges will be assigned to rule on the appeal. There is no deadline for a ruling, and a decision could take months.