Purdue, Sacklers Scramble to Respond to Wave of Lawsuits

Purdue Pharma headquarters / Getty Images

Purdue Pharma, the embattled makers of the now infamous painkiller OxyContin, have made several key moves in the past week in response to the ever-mounting wave of litigation they now face.

Last week, the firm reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma rather than go to court, the New York Times reported. This payment is intended as compensation for the role the firm has played in the on-going opioid crisis. Namely, its distribution of the high-potency, long-lasting pill OxyContin has been connected to the surge in prescription opioid deaths over the past decade and, after its reformulation, indirectly to the heroin crisis.

Purdue has been accused of engaging in deceitful and harmful advertising practices, allegedly pushing their drugs on doctors and patients on the basis of minimal scientific evidence. The settlement with Oklahoma represents at least partial acknowledgement by the firm that it played some role in opioid deaths there, including the burdens that the crisis has placed on the state.

However, settlement with one state still leaves 35 more suing the company, as well as the 1600 plaintiffs in a federal court case against Purdue currently consolidated in the northern district of Ohio.

"The settlement does put a stake in the ground for the other cases," Abbe R. Gluck, a professor at Yale Law School, told the Times. "It telegraphs what these cases might be worth and makes the elephant in the room even larger — namely, do Purdue and the Sacklers have sufficient funds to give fair payouts in the 1600-plus cases that remain?"

Purdue is indeed rumored to be considering bankruptcy, as it faces potential damages that could dwarf even the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in scale. While willing to pay out to Oklahoma, the company has thus far sought to protect a different pot of money, namely the personal funds of its owners, the ultra-wealthy Sackler family.

The state of Massachusetts became the first to bring suit against the Sacklers independent of their company last June, alleging that members of the family — especially former Purdue president Richard Sackler — were directly involved in the aggressive marketing of OxyContin.  Since then, other states including New York, have brought similar personal suits.

On Tuesday, the LA Times reports, the family fired back, claiming that the Massachusetts lawsuit contained "misleading and inflammatory allegations" and willfully takes internal emails out of context to paint a misleading picture.

"We are confident the court will look past the inflammatory media coverage generated by the misleading complaint and apply the law fairly by dismissing all of these claims," Sackler family members said in a statement.

But the Massachusetts suit may be just the beginning for the family's legal troubles. Reporting from the New York Times Monday, based on the New York lawsuit, suggests that in 2014, the Sacklers sought to profit off of a crisis they helped create by expanding into for-profit opioid-use disorder treatment. (The family told the Times that these filings were also "filled with claims that are demonstrably false and unsupportable by the actual facts.")