Judge affirms dismissal of opioid lawsuit brought by North Dakota

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announces the filing of a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and their role in the opiod crisis on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, during a press conference at First Step Recovery in south Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service
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North Dakota’s lawsuit against a major opioid manufacturer was closed this week, despite efforts to reverse a ruling for dismissal issued in May. Nearly every state is attempting to sue opioid producers, but this is the first full dismissal of a case brought forward by a state.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem previously said the state plans to appeal the decision in the state Supreme Court.

The lawsuit, filed in May 2018 by Stenehjem, sought to recover monetary damages from Purdue Pharma Inc., one of the country’s top opioid producers. The court document said the company spurred the drug epidemic through aggressive marketing designed to boost drug sales and encourage the use of opioids prescribed to treat chronic pain.

Purdue Pharma created OxyContin to treat chronic pain, but the drug has since become well-known for being highly addictive. Along with the synthetic drug fentanyl, Oxycontin has become one of the most abused prescription drugs in the opioid epidemic. Heroin is also considered an opioid.

The Center for Disease Control estimates 218,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2017. The Department of Health and Human Services declared it a public health emergency in 2017 and called for immediate action to combat the epidemic.


During 2017, there were 9.2 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 North Dakotans versus the nationwide average of 21.7 deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Nearly every state is suing companies in the drug industry, along with about 2,000 cities, counties or tribal governments — including dozens in North Dakota and Minnesota. The dismissal of North Dakota’s suit is the first case brought by a state to be dismissed, although some municipal lawsuits have been dropped.

A settlement between the Purdue Pharma and Kentucky was reached in 2015. Oklahoma won a settlement with the company and the family that owns Purdue Pharma in March.

The suit brought by Grand Forks County was transferred earlier this month to Cleveland, where about 1,500 suits were consolidated under one judge. The first trial is scheduled for October if a settlement is not reached.

North Dakota sought unspecified damages but aimed to hold Purdue Pharma responsible for “medical care and law enforcement response of North Dakota’s population due to overuse, addiction, injury, overdose and death,” court documents said. The suit claimed the opioid epidemic and a public health crisis within the state were largely fueled by “a fraudulent and deceptive marketing campaign intended by Purdue to increase sales of its opioid products.”

The order also declared that Purdue “has no control over its product after it is sold to distributors, then to pharmacies, and then prescribed to customers.”

In May, Burleigh County District Court Judge James Hill granted a dismissal of the lawsuit and said “the state’s effort to hold one company to account for this entire, complex public health issue oversimplifies the problem,” according to the 27-page order.

The state filed a motion shortly after seeking to reverse the decision. Hill denied the motion Monday on the same grounds listed previously and also said Purdue’s marketing practices were consistent with FDA-approved product labeling.


“For years, the FDA was aware of issues asserted by the State, studied all relevant available information, and instructed that no labeling or warning change was yet warranted,” Hill wrote.

Stenehjem previously said the state will appeal the decision in the state Supreme Court because “the court’s ruling is contrary to decisions made by every other court around the country based upon the same or similar allegations and legal arguments made by attorneys general.”

Public Information Officer Liz Brocker said the denial “was not unexpected and is a procedural step in the process of appealing the court’s original decision.”

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