Sackler Family Empire Poised To Win Immunity From Opioid Lawsuits
A bankruptcy judge cleared a plan for final vote by creditors of Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, that would release the Sacklers and their financial empire from liability for the opioid crisis.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To other news - the bankruptcy plan for the maker of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma cleared a major hurdle today. If it wins final approval from the company's creditors, the settlement could mean billions of dollars in aid for communities devastated by the opioid crisis. It also would bring members of the Sackler family a big step closer to their goal of winning immunity from future opioid lawsuits for themselves and their financial empire. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: All right, so what are the contours of this? What exactly happened this afternoon?
MANN: Yeah, so there have been these incredibly high-stakes negotiations. And as you mentioned, there are billions of dollars at stake. So late today, federal bankruptcy judge Robert Drain here in New York approved the deal's broad terms, allowing it to move forward - a big milestone. Under this plan, the Sacklers will give up control of Purdue Pharma. Though members of the family maintain they did nothing wrong, they have agreed to pay more than $4 billion from their private fortunes. Now, this isn't the final finish line, but it's very close. And now it will go to a vote by hundreds of thousands of creditors who say they were harmed by OxyContin. We really could see a final resolution of this landmark case by this summer.
KELLY: Now, what does this mean for the hundreds of civil lawsuits that some members of the family have faced, alleging they played a personal role in the crisis? I will note the Sacklers deny those allegations, but what happens? If this deal is finalized, what happens to those cases?
MANN: Yeah, this is controversial. Those lawsuits would be stopped dead in their tracks. Under the deal, the Sacklers would walk away from the opioid crisis with a clean slate legally. And we've also learned from these court documents that this immunity would extend to literally hundreds of other companies, trusts and consultants. None of those entities have declared bankruptcy. But using a rare and, again, controversial provision of bankruptcy law, this deal would allow all of those folks to gain protections from lawsuits without actually filing for bankruptcy.
KELLY: Well, let's look at this from a couple of angles. First, the arguments in favor of this deal - why do supporters support it?
MANN: Yeah. Purdue Pharma's legal team made a simple argument that this deal would prevent a firestorm - a chaos of litigation - preventing hundreds of thousands of individual lawsuits. And instead, they say financial help will now go to communities and people harmed by opioids relatively quickly, possibly as soon as next year. A lot of states, as well as local governments, have signaled they will vote for this. You know, with more than 90,000 drug overdose deaths again last year, officials say they need financial help desperately right now.
KELLY: But a couple of dozen state attorneys general opposed this plan. How come?
MANN: Yeah, this is interesting. This deal would force them, they say, to give up their authority to sue members of the Sackler family, even though the Sacklers, again, have not filed for bankruptcy. And these states argue that allows the Sacklers to avoid accountability. They will remain one of the wealthiest families in the country - admit no wrongdoing. And that makes a lot of people angry. A lot of these attorneys general also say it would set a dangerous precedent, allowing other wealthy people to use bankruptcy court like this - protecting themselves from liability, again, without actually ever filing for bankruptcy.
KELLY: And to weave in a little bit of context, we've been talking Purdue Pharma, but there is a big legal reckoning ahead for a lot of companies involved in the opioid business.
MANN: Yeah, this is a fascinating moment. Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers get talked about a lot in this drug epidemic, but there are much bigger corporations that got into the opioid trade - AmerisourceBergen, Johnson & Johnson and Walmart. There are other lawsuits underway all over the country. Tens of billions of dollars are at stake if they're found liable, so this is a big moment for a reckoning, as you say, with the opioid crisis.
KELLY: That is Brian Mann, NPR's addiction correspondent, talking about the bankruptcy deal and its prospects for Purdue Pharma.
Thank you, Brian.
MANN: Thank you so much.
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