Narcotic painkiller manufacturers face lawsuit in California over drug marketing practices

by Jim Orr

Officials from two counties in California filed a sweeping lawsuit this weekend against five of the largest manufacturers of opioid painkillers, accusing the companies of engaging in a campaign to boost the sales of these drugs that resulted in the overdose deaths of thousands of patients. Experts compared the lawsuit filed by Santa Clara and Orange county officials to the sweeping legal attacks that were launched against the tobacco industry for its effort to deceive the public about the link between smoking and lung cancer.

The lawsuit against Actavis, Endo Health Solutions, Janssen Pharmaceuticals (owned by Johnson & Johnson), Purdue Pharma, and Cephalon (owned by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries) accuses the companies of violating California laws against false advertising, engaging in unfair business practices, and creating a public nuisance. The five companies named in the lawsuit are the manufacturers of some of the most widely prescribed—and most commonly abused—narcotic painkillers in the U.S., including drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, tramadol, and fentanyl.

The complaint filed this week in California alleges that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the five drug companies named in the lawsuit engaged in a campaign to convince doctors that the benefits of using narcotic painkillers to treat conditions such as chronic pain outweighed the potential risks of doing so. “The result,” the lawsuit contends, “has been catastrophic:” 16,000 deaths from painkiller overdoses each year and “a population of addicts” that has led to a resurgence in the popularity of heroin.

As described in an article published last week in the Los Angeles Times, the campaign by the opioid industry to promote the use of narcotic painkillers began in response to concerns about the abuse and overdose potential of these medications:

Twenty years ago, the narcotics industry was hemmed in by a small market because the long-held fear of addiction stopped doctors from prescribing powerful painkillers for anything but cancer pain and end-of-life suffering. To expand their market, the drug companies engaged in a dishonest campaign that “reeducated” doctors and revolutionized the treatment of pain associated with a wider array of aliments, the suit alleges.

Officials allege that the makers of opioid painkillers promoted these drugs to doctors as being safer than they are and making unproven claims about the benefits of these drugs that exceeded Food and Drug Administration rules that limit the claims that drug companies can make in the marketing of prescription medications. By allegedly paying leading physicians to write medical articles and give speeches about opioid medications, creating and controlling patient advocacy organizations to promote the use of these drugs, and helping to write treatment guidelines that called for their expanded use with patients, the drug companies named in the California lawsuit played a key role in the growing number of opioid prescriptions that have been issued over the last two decades.

Above all, the lawsuit contends, it was this campaign of “marketing — and not any medical breakthrough — that rationalized prescribing opioids for chronic pain and opened the floodgates of opioid use and abuse.” In the years since beginning this campaign, the makers of powerful opioid painkillers have continued to promote the use of these drugs for chronic pain, even though this is “unsupported by competent scientific evidence.”

Brands of opioid painkillers manufactured and sold by the five companies named in the California lawsuit include:

  • Actavis: fentanyl, Kadian, oxymorphone
  • Cephalon: Actiq, Fentora
  • Endo Health Solutions: Opana, Percocet, Percodan
  • Janssen Pharmaceuticals: Duragesic, Nucynta, Ultracet, Ultram
  • Purdue Pharma: OxyContin

Lawsuit Against Opioid Manufacturers Not the First Legal Action

The California lawsuit against five manufacturers of powerful narcotic painkillers is not the first significant legal action taken against the makers of opioid medications. In 2007, three executives from Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges that the company misled doctors and patients about the abuse and addiction potential of the company’s drug, OxyContin. According to a lawsuit filed against the company, Purdue claimed that OxyContin had a lower risk of leading to abuse or addiction among patients than shorter-acting painkillers such as Percocet or Vicodin. Patients quickly discovered, however, that chewing or snorting OxyContin and oxycodone tablets produced a high as powerful as heroin—causing the rate of addictions and overdoses related to use of the drugs to climb to unprecedented numbers.

As we reported in August 2013 (, an investigation revealed that during this time, Purdue maintained a list of doctors who were the most frequent prescribers of OxyContin—including physicians known to have prescribed the drug to drug addicts or drug dealers. Purdue allegedly refused to turn this list over to law enforcement or medical authorities despite the enormous usefulness that it could have had on their efforts to prevent prescription drug overdose deaths caused by OxyContin and other opioid painkillers.

Other opioid manufacturers have faced lawsuits filed by individuals or their families whose lives have been affected by addictions or overdoses caused by these drugs. Nearly half of all prescription drug deaths in Southern California between 2006 and 2011 involved at least one opioid painkiller, according to a study published in 2012 by the Los Angeles Times.

Help for Victims of Opioid Painkiller Overdoses

The marketing practices of drug companies who manufacture opioid painkillers have had a disastrous effect on the lives of patients who have suffered addictions or overdoses because of these drugs. Thousands of patients are killed each year because of an opioid overdose, making deaths from painkiller medications one of the leading causes of the unprecedented rise in prescription drugs deaths in the U.S. over recent years.

Doctors who prescribe these medications indiscriminately to their patients have also played a role in the epidemic of prescription painkiller overdoses in this country. When doctors or hospitals give opioid medications to their patients without exercising proper care, they are putting the health—and even the lives—of their patients in jeopardy. Patients who are prescribed narcotic painkillers that are stronger than what is needed to treat their symptoms, or who are prescribed more pills than necessary, face a greater risk of suffering an accidental overdose or becoming addicted to these medications.

Patients who are the victims of addiction or overdose from opioid painkillers may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the drug’s manufacturer, as well as the doctor or hospital who prescribed the medication. The first step in filing a lawsuit is to secure the help of an experienced attorney who can guide you through your case.

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have represented numerous individuals who have been the victim of complications caused by opioid painkiller prescriptions. Our law firm has handled more cases involving the fentanyl pain patch—a powerful opioid painkiller that is about 80-100 times more powerful than morphine—than all other law firms in the country combined.

For more information about filing an opioid painkiller lawsuit and to learn if you may be eligible to file a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form located on this website.

by Jim Orr

Jim Orr is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P focusing on business and personal injury litigation. Jim was selected multiple times to the Super Lawyers List and has tried 70+ cases to verdict.