Billionaire OxyContin Pushers Granted Immunity; Half a Million People Still Dead

Billionaire OxyContin Pushers Granted Immunity; Half a Million People Still Dead
Purdue Pharma headquarters stands in downtown Stamford, April 2, 2019 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images)

Members of the billionaire Sackler family, long accused of misleading the public about the addictiveness of the OxyContin sold by their privately owned pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, were granted sweeping immunity from civil lawsuits by a federal judge on Wednesday.

As part of a bankruptcy plan that was negotiated behind closed doors, the Sacklers — who are said to possess net assets in excess of $US11 ($15) billion — have agreed to forfeit ownership of Purdue and pay out $US4.5 ($6) billion over the course of nine years. The settlement will also dissolve the company.

The Sacklers will be shielded from future lawsuits related to opioids, though the deal offers no protection from criminal charges. No such charges have been filed, however, and none so far have been reported as pending. The drugmaker has previously pleaded guilty to widespread misconduct, including illegal kickbacks to doctors, and for misleading federal law enforcement officials and downplaying OxyContin’s addictiveness.

Wednesday’s settlement, which resolves some 3,000 lawsuits brought against the Connecticut-based company and the family, does not require the Sacklers to admit to any wrongdoing in the country’s two-decades-long opioid epidemic, which has claimed roughly 500,000 lives since 1999.

Documents disclosed in early 2019 showed Richard Sackler, former chairman and president of Purdue, telling company officials in 2008 to measure Purdue’s performance by the strength of the drugs being prescribed. Higher dosages, which also carried a higher risk for addiction, netted the family the most profit.

Sackler had long pushed the company to blame opioid abuse on the people addicted to the company’s products. “They are the culprits and the problem,” Sackler wrote, while president, in one email, referring to addicts as “reckless criminals.”

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York had encouraged state and local governments to settle with the family, saying the process offered victims the best chance of compensation. Not everyone agreed. Attorneys general for nine states and the District of Columbia rejected the deal.

“There is no perfect solution here,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a July press conference. “But we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This deal gets one of the nation’s most harmful drug dealers out of the opioid business.”

As part of the deal, Purdue will make public more than 30 million internal documents, including attorney-client communications, related to the government’s approval OxyContin and the company’s efforts to market the drug.

The Justice Department vehemently opposed the settlement, too, calling it illegal. U.S. attorneys argued the deal violates the due process rights of victims, denying them the opportunity to be heard.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson of Washington announced a plan to appeal quickly after the news, saying the immunity granted to the Sacklers, their associates, and other companies “sends a message that billionaires operate by a different set of rules than everybody else.”

“This order is insulting to victims of the opioid epidemic who had no voice in these proceedings,” Ferguson said, “and must be appealed.”