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4 top pain docs named as defendants in opioid crisis lawsuits

Opioid overdoses are a national health crisis, and local governments are taking steps to hold someone accountable. Over 450 lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts by cities and counties across the nation. Most of those lawsuits accuse the five main manufacturers of opioid pain medications of instigating the crisis with false claims about the drugs' efficacy and risks.

Many of the lawsuits also name doctors. At least 80 cases name three specific doctors and at least 18 include a fourth, who is apparently named in fewer suits simply because he lacks insurance. These physicians allegedly participated in research, consulting, public speaking, continuing medical education and other activities which promoted the use of opioid drugs. Allegedly in exchange, they and organizations they led received tens of thousands of dollars from the drug makers.

According to the typical claim, these doctors were identified as "key opinion leaders" or KOLs -- a term used by pharmaceutical marketers to indicate a doctor who can influence other physicians' behavior. Using KOLs in an attempt to influence other doctors' prescribing behavior constitutes "unbranded" or unofficial marketing, which is not as closely supervised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as are official "branded" marketing campaigns.

These complaints generally accuse the doctors of allowing the drug makers to use them to spread deceptive information that overstated the opioid drugs' efficacy and understated the risks.

"Although some KOLs may have advocated for permissive opioid prescribing with honest intentions," reads a typical complaint, "the KOLs knew, or deliberately ignored, the misleading way in which they portrayed the use of opioids to treat chronic pain to patients and prescribers."

Moreover, the drug makers "cultivated and promoted only those KOLs who could be relied on to help broaden the chronic opioid therapy market," which created a strong financial incentive for the physicians to cooperate with the manufacturers' messages.

The drug makers typically named in these lawsuits include:

  • Purdue Pharma -- OxyContin
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals/Cephalon -- Actiq and Fentora
  • Johnson & Johnson's/Janssen -- Duragesic
  • Endo Health Solutions -- Opana, Percodan, and Percocet
  • Allergan -- Kadian

The four doctors have asked judges to dismiss the suits for failing to make a legally actionable claim. The drug manufacturers have also denied any wrongdoing.

In general, drug makers can be held legally liable if they market medications in a misleading way, especially if the marketing misstates the medical risks and benefits of the drug. It is quite unusual, however, to attempt to hold doctors accountable for their part in promoting a drug, especially if the marketing was unofficial. It will be interesting to watch the progress of these lawsuits.

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