In the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy trial now underway, scrutiny has focused on the Sacklers' demand for immunity from opioid lawsuits that would extend to a vast network of individuals and businesses.



A bankruptcy trial is underway in New York for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Members of the Sackler family, who own the drug company, have testified they bear no responsibility for the nation's deadly opioid epidemic. As part of the bankruptcy deal, the Sacklers are demanding immunity from lawsuits for themselves and for a network of companies and organizations.

NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this.

Brian, you've reported before, the Sacklers want a clean slate for themselves - no more opioid lawsuits. But this deal in particular would also shelter a bunch of other people and companies from liability. How would that work?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: You know, this has been a major flashpoint in this trial, A. And it was again yesterday. As part of Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy settlement, the Sacklers, who say they've done nothing wrong, have agreed to pay $4.3 billion to fund addiction treatment programs. But the Sacklers want something really big in return.

Their attorneys have drawn up this single-spaced list of individuals, organizations and companies. This list runs for 12 full pages. If this deal is finalized, everyone on the list would be sheltered permanently from lawsuits linked to opioids and OxyContin and from a wide range of other lawsuits.

MARTINEZ: And why does that matter?

MANN: So this is interesting. Critics say the Sacklers and their empire are at the center of one of the biggest manmade public health disasters in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in this epidemic. Their company has pleaded guilty to federal crimes linked to the OxyContin business, first in 2007 and again last year. Again, the Sacklers deny wrongdoing and have never been charged.

But there are still big unanswered questions about how this prescription opioid crisis happened and who in the Sacklers' network might be liable for some of the harm. And let me give you one example, A. You know, the consulting giant McKinsey, they acknowledged helping Purdue Pharma try to turbo charge OxyContin sales. They apologized and earlier this year paid more than $500 million to settle opioid claims. So we know what role McKinsey played.

But if this bankruptcy deal is finalized, all these other companies on the list that worked with Purdue Pharma or the Sacklers, they'd be shielded from liability in the future. And the books would be closed. All questions about their role would likely never be answered.

MARTINEZ: So who's on that 12-page list?

MANN: Well, we can identify some of them. They include lobbying firms - one run by former U.S. senator Luther Strange, a Republican from Alabama. There are also other law firms, financial consulting firms, PR firms, drug companies. It's a long list. And some of these parties aren't even clearly identified. And it's not clear what role many of these entities played.

MARTINEZ: All right. Things have gotten this far. So how likely is it that the Sacklers will get what they want?

MANN: Well, again, this is fascinating. Federal Judge Robert Drain, who's been broadly supportive of this bankruptcy plan, has final say over this. And during the last week, he has asked really pointed and even skeptical questions about the scope of these legal protections for the Sacklers and all these other parties. In theory, Drain could shorten the list of companies that get this protection or narrow their legal immunity. But one thing that happened this week is during testimony, one of the former Purdue Pharma board members and owners, David Sackler - Sackler threatened to walk away from this settlement if the family and their associates don't win these broad legal protections.

MARTINEZ: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent. The Purdue Pharma bankruptcy trial is expected to wrap up with closing arguments next week.

Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.