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SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to "streamline" Utah's lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and other opioids, the Utah Attorney General's Office has a new strategy.
The office on Wednesday filed an administrative action in the form of a citation against Purdue — while also explicitly naming the companies' owners, Richard and Kathe Sackler — to expedite court proceedings in Utah's efforts to "hold accountable the opioid companies and individuals that created and fueled the opioid epidemic throughout Utah," the attorney general's office said in a statement.
The filing comes after evidence has emerged over the past year, leading Utah attorneys to allege that not only Purdue, but two of its owners participated in fraud.
Prosecutors allege that Purdue violated state consumer protection laws, misrepresented the risk of addiction, and falsely claimed doctors and patients could increase dosages without risk.
“We are committed to achieving the best results for the state of Utah and pursuing all legal avenues appropriate to hold the companies and individuals that created this crisis accountable,” Attorney General Sean Reyes said.
After seeing multiple media reports about Purdue retaining restructuring counsel — along with other indications the company could be considering bankruptcy — Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said his team decided that filing an administrative action would be "in the best interest of the people of Utah."
An administrative filing allows the state to seek to prove its claims and obtain a judgment, injunctive relief and civil penalties more promptly than state district court proceedings, he said. The attorney general's office estimates the administrative filing could be adjudicated within 180 days, rather than years in the court.
"This action allows us to expedite legal proceedings against Purdue and the named executives, who we allege incited and participated in the deceptive sales and marketing tactics that ultimately led to an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse in our state," Reyes said.
Along with the new filing, the state dismissed without prejudice the civil lawsuit Utah filed against Purdue Pharma in Carbon County last May, meaning the state may refile against Purdue Pharma in the future, according to Reyes' office.
We want to send a message and we want the practice and behaviors to stop.
–Attorney General Sean Reyes
At the time of the lawsuit's filing, Reyes said Purdue Pharma "manufactured one of the deadliest combinations in the history of our nation — OxyContin and lies."
"That lethal cocktail has led to a national public health crisis of epic proportions," Reyes said. "While Purdue's executives got rich, Utah was plunged into a national public health crisis."
The previous complaint sought millions of dollars in damages and a court order stemming the flow of opioids into the state.
Reyes said his office is "confident" in the approach to put new "pressure" on defendants to be "more reasonable." He said the "door is still open" for a settlement, but his office isn't currently engaging in settlement discussions with Purdue or its owners.
Reyes said the aim is not just to get a "payout."
"We want to send a message and we want the practice and behaviors to stop," he said.
The administrative process, which the Division of Consumer Protection regularly uses, will provide "prompt and full consideration of the state's claims," Reyes said.
"Our families, health care professionals, first responders and law enforcement officers know the urgency of the opioid epidemic," he said. "As we recognized when we filed suit, and in the several months since then, we don’t have more time to lose."
Attorneys allege in court documents that Purdue and the Sackler family have "intentionally engaged, and continue to engage, in an aggressive marketing campaign to overstate the benefits and misstate and conceal the risks of treating chronic pain with opioids in order to increase their profits."
Purdue Pharma officials in a statement issued Wednesday said they "vigorously deny the allegations" in Utah's filing.
"We share the state’s concerns about the opioid crisis," Purdue officials said in the statement. "While Purdue Pharma’s opioid medicines account for less than 2 percent of total prescriptions, we will continue to work collaboratively with the state toward bringing meaningful solutions forward to address this public health challenge."
Purdue officials said Utah's filing "disregards basic facts" about Purdue's opioid medications, including that the Federal Drug Administration approved OxyContin and other Purdue medications as "safe and effective for their intended use." Additionally, the FDA approved a reformulated version of OxyContin, which Purdue developed in order to "deter abuse," the statement said.
Meanwhile, Reyes said his office is continuing to investigate other "potential wrongdoers."
Reyes and a group of more than 40 other state attorneys general have been investigating the extent to which the entire opioid industry — manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies — are accused of engaging in unlawful practices.
Purdue Pharma alone faces hundreds of lawsuits by government entities while other investigations remain ongoing.
The filing comes as legal pressure continues to mount on the Sackler family. Last week, a legal filing in Massachusetts accused the Sacklers and other executives of seeking to push prescriptions of the drug and downplay its risks, the Associated Press reported.
Members of the family are also defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York's Suffolk County. Few, if any, other governments have sued the family so far — but Utah's administrative filing Tuesday adds to the pressure.
Contributing: Ladd Egan