STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
City officials in Everett - that's in western Washington state - are taking a bold step in their effort to control the opioid crisis. The city filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of OxyContin, a leading opioid pain medication, claiming the manufacturer knew the drug was being illegally trafficked to residents and did not act to stop it. The suit accuses the manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, of gross negligence.
And it says the company should pay the costs of handling the crisis. This lawsuit follows a sweeping investigation by the Los Angeles Times that traced pills illegally prescribed in LA to cities across the West Coast. Reporter Harriet Ryan was part of a team of reporters on that investigation and spoke with our colleague Rachel Martin.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How did OxyContin pills end up in western Washington state?
HARRIET RYAN: It starts at a fake clinic near downtown LA. They were using physicians that had fallen on hard times and needed money. The corrupt physicians were writing prescriptions for huge quantities of OxyContin to homeless people. And then the drug ring would then escort the homeless people to corrupt pharmacies, where they would fill these prescriptions. And they moved huge quantities of these pills, we believe, throughout the western United States.
MARTIN: You reported that, eventually, an employee of Purdue Pharma, which is the manufacturer - the only manufacturer in the country of OxyContin - noticed this and flagged it as suspicious. How did Purdue respond?
RYAN: So Purdue actually has a very robust security apparatus that looks for diversion of its pills. And there was an investigation of the main doctor writing prescriptions.
MARTIN: A Pharma investigation, a corporate investigation.
RYAN: A corporate investigation. And they determined that the doctor who was writing a lot of the prescriptions should go on a list that the company maintains of physicians that are suspected of misprescribing or colluding with drug dealers and addicts. But it didn't necessarily mean that they would turn her into law enforcement. So it wasn't until three years after the ring had shut down that they came forward and went to the U.S. attorney's office in LA and turned over some of the information they had.
MARTIN: This is after the drug ring was shut down because of other factors. It wasn't that Pharma had alerted federal authorities.
RYAN: No. Purdue Pharma didn't go to authorities. And our understanding is that the criminals that were running the drug ring started to suspect they were under investigation by law enforcement. And so they closed up shop. And it was after that that Purdue came forward to federal prosecutors with some of the information they had.
MARTIN: So that brings us to this lawsuit now. The city of Everett in Washington state, where these people were using these OxyContin pills, has sued Purdue Pharma. This is not the first time a city or municipality has sued this company. What makes this lawsuit different?
RYAN: Everett is saying that Purdue knew that the pills were going into the black market. And Everett is suing solely on that basis and saying, you are responsible for the damage that criminals did to our town with your product.
MARTIN: But are they responsible? I mean, Purdue Pharma hasn't actually been charged of breaking any laws. Are there laws on the books that would make corporations responsible for this?
RYAN: I've talked to various legal experts in this kind of litigation. Some of them say, look. They have a shot here because their internal records showing that Purdue knew - had evidence about what was going on. But others say this is such a long shot. They're just not going to be able to do it. So the town - it's a small city of 100,000. But they say they're committed to seeing it through to the end.
MARTIN: That's LA Times reporter Harriet Ryan talking with our colleague Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.