Judge halts lawsuit blaming Purdue, Endo and others for epidemic of drug abuse

It was attention-grabbing when California sued a handful of drugmakers, accusing them of lying about the safety of their high-powered painkillers and blaming them for an epidemic of prescription drug overdoses and a resurgence in heroin use. But from a legal standpoint, a California judge has ruled, there is not much there to stand on.

California Superior Court Judge Robert J. Moss

California Superior Court Judge Robert J. Moss Thursday put a stay on the case based on the legal briefs. He said that unless the attorneys for Orange and Santa Clara counties decide to ask for oral arguments, the case will be dismissed.

Essentially, Judge Moss said that what California was asking of him was to regulate the marketing and determine the safety of certain prescription drugs, essentially taking on the authority similar to that of the FDA. He said the Supreme Court has already ruled that is not a role for a judge.

"The court does not shrink from its responsibilities to handle complex, convoluted litigation; it handles such matters every day of the week," Moss wrote. "It does, however, take pause at involving itself in an area which is best left to agencies such as the FDA who are designed to address such issues."

There was a big hurrah for the ruling from Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, the most successful, and notorious, of the opioid pain drugs. "We are pleased Judge Moss agreed that complex scientific issues regarding the treatment of chronic pain are best decided by the FDA, the agency with relevant expertise."

The suit was filed last year by Orange and Santa Clara counties against Purdue, Actavis ($ACT), Endo Health Solutions ($ENDP), Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA). It accused the 5 drugmakers of a campaign of deception, while violating California laws against false advertising, unfair business practices and creating a public nuisance. It seeks on behalf of the entire state damages for its costs of dealing with the problem and for the companies to give up profits tied to their sales.

The lawsuit accused the drugmakers of downplaying the dangers of opioids to doctors and opening a "floodgate" for their use. It said they have profited by manipulating doctors into believing the benefits of narcotic painkillers outweighed the risks, despite "a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary." It also suggested that the wide use of the drugs has led to drug users moving to heroin, a cheaper drug with similar effects.

It was followed weeks later by a similar lawsuit against the same drugmakers in Chicago. In May, everyone but Purdue was dismissed from the case, with a judge there saying accusations against everyone but Purdue were too vague to be actionable.

- here's the ruling (PDF)