A judge has rejected the OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy settlement of thousands of lawsuits over the opioid epidemic because of a provision that would protect members of the Sackler family from facing litigation of their own.
The ruling on Thursday from Judge Colleen McMahon in New York is likely to be appealed by the company, family members and the thousands of government entities that support the plan.
Purdue sought bankruptcy protection in 2019 as it faced thousands of lawsuits claiming the company pushed doctors to prescribe OxyContin, helping spark an opioid crisis that has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US over the last two decades.
Through the bankruptcy court, it worked out a deal with its creditors. Members of the Sackler family would give up ownership of the company, which would transform into a different kind of entity that would still sell opioids – but with profits being used to fight the crisis. It would also develop new anti-addiction and anti-overdose drugs and provide them at little or no cost.
Sackler family members also would contribute $4.5bn in cash and charitable assets as part of an overall deal that could be worth $10bn, including the value of the new drugs, if they’re brought to market.
The deal also calls for millions of company documents, including communications with lawyers, to be made public.
In return, members of the wealthy family would get protection from lawsuits over their role in the opioid crisis – both the 860 already filed and any in the future.
Most state and local governments, Indigenous tribes, individual opioid victims and others who voted said the plan worked out in the bankruptcy court should be accepted.
But the US bankruptcy trustee’s office, eight state attorneys general and some other entities have been fighting the deal. They argue that it does not properly hold members of the Sackler family accountable and that it usurps states’ ability to try to do so.
The bankruptcy judge in September approved a settlement by Purdue Pharma, including about $4.5bn from the company’s billionaire Sackler family owners, even though the decision is still being challenged in court and provoked outrage from many critics and campaigners.
Some wanted to see those family members prevented from being shielded from further civil liability and also hoped some Sacklers would end up in prison, the likelihood of which faded when Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three criminal charges last year and paid $8bn in fines and damages.
Opponents appealed to McMahon’s court.
The Purdue deal would not protect family members from any criminal charges. But so far none have been filed.
The US attorney general, Merrick Garland, said: “We are pleased with the district court’s decision invalidating the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy plan. The bankruptcy court did not have the authority to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family.”
At the height of the legal battle against the owners of Purdue Pharma in 2019, members of the Sackler family were being sued by multiple American cities, counties and states, with allegations in civil lawsuits including that “eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the US opioid epidemic” – via a “deadly, deceptive … illegal scheme” to flood the US with Purdue’s OxyContin.
Earlier this month New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum announced that it would no longer display the Sackler name in its galleries, having previously joined a host of other arts and education institutions in ceasing to accept donations from the billionaire Sackler family members who own Purdue, and their charitable trusts.