Photo by Marko Javorac/Flickr.

OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma is asking a West Virginia judge to keep thousands of court records secret until the company’s lawyers have a chance to review the documents and say which ones should remain hidden from the public.

The court documents were filed two decades ago as part of a class-action lawsuit against Purdue. The entire court file remains sealed and the records are being kept in storage in Putnam County. 

In a filing this week, Purdue told Putnam County Circuit Judge Philip Stowers that some of the records — including videos and tape recordings — may be “commercially sensitive.” The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and recently pleaded guilty to federal charges over its role in sparking the opioid epidemic.

Last month, HBO, The Washington Post and a documentary film company filed a motion in Putnam County to unseal the Purdue Pharma records from the 2001 lawsuit that accused the drug manufacturer of failing to supervise the use of its highly-addictive painkiller OxyContin. The drug was being diverted to the black market, and West Virginians were overdosing and dying in record numbers. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2007.

Stowers has scheduled a hearing for Friday afternoon.

Before any documents are released, Purdue Pharma wants to conduct a “confidentiality review” of the court records to identify anything the company “believes should remain protected from public disclosure,” according to its filing. The judge should give the company a chance to “review and redact” materials to protect “confidential commercial information” and patient medical records, Purdue’s lawyers said.

HBO, the Post and PK Films, represented by Morgantown lawyers Pat McGinley and Suzanne Weise, have said they aren’t seeking any personal health records. They argue that “the public interest in disclosure of Purdue’s aggressive and unlawful opioid marketing practices substantially outweighs continuing secrecy.”

In 2001, Purdue Pharma and the West Virginia families suing the company agreed to a “protective order,” which allowed both sides to turn over information and keep it confidential while the case was being litigated. 

The agreement required Purdue and the families to return or destroy the records after they settled the lawsuit. In its filing this week, Purdue said it shared “hundreds of thousands” of documents with the families’ attorneys over six years, in addition to  more than 1,100 records that are part of the court file. 

HBO and the Post have asked Stowers to vacate the 2001 order and open the court file.  

Purdue’s lawyers have characterized the request as “sweeping and unprecedented.” 

While the company remains in bankruptcy, Purdue “maintains an active business that has the right to seek the continued protection of confidential commercially valuable information…” the lawyers told the Putnam judge. 

In November, a federal judge approved a $8.3 billion settlement proposal between Purdue and the U.S. Justice Department. The agreement, which hasn’t been finalized, requires the company to reorganize as a “public benefit trust” that would use any profits to provide free or low-cost opioid addiction treatment and overdose-reversing drugs. Members of the wealthy Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, have agreed to pay $225 million in fines to the federal government and divest from the company. The Sacklers haven’t faced criminal charges. 

Also this week, 20 hospitals across West Virginia filed a motion to join the push to unseal the Purdue Pharma records in Putnam County. The hospitals previously sued Purdue and other opioid manufacturers in federal court. Those lawsuits are ongoing.

Eric Eyre, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 for stories on the opioid crisis, is a senior investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight. He is the author of Death...