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Sackler Empire Is Poised To Win Immunity From Opioid Lawsuits

NOEL KING, HOST:

A federal judge has ruled that a bankruptcy plan for Purdue Pharma can go forward. This plan would effectively shield members of the Sackler family who own the company from lawsuits. The company has been sued again and again for the role it played in the opioid crisis. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is following this story. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: What would this bankruptcy plan protect the Sackler family from?

MANN: Yeah. This is really a big list of people. More than 600,000 individuals, governments and organizations say they've been harmed by Purdue Pharma and by addiction to OxyContin. And there was a real question in all of this whether a bankruptcy deal could be hammered out that's concrete enough and satisfies enough of those people to even move forward. Billions of dollars, remember, are in play here. And negotiations in this continued right up until the deadline yesterday. In the end, Judge Robert Drain here in New York said, yes, this plan meets the legal standards. It can move forward toward final approval. And that's expected later this summer.

KING: You spent a lot of time in communities that have been hit really hard by the opioid epidemic. How does this settlement help them?

MANN: Well, the way this is structured, Purdue Pharma and the company's owners - again, members of the Sackler family - they would start paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That could happen as early as February. Government officials I've been talking to say they desperately need this cash to pay for things like drug rehab programs, housing, foster care. Some money will also go to individuals and families who suffered personal injuries from OxyContin. No one thinks this is going to be enough money. But they say, yes, this will help.

KING: And then under the deal, what happens to members of the Sackler family?

MANN: Yeah. This is really the controversial part, Noel. The Sacklers say they've done nothing wrong. That's important to remember. They've maintained they acted ethically in all of this. And they've agreed as part of the settlement to give up ownership of Purdue Pharma. And they'll also pay roughly $4.2 billion from their personal fortunes. But they're demanding something big in return. Even though they themselves haven't declared bankruptcy - in fact, they're one of the richest families in America - this deal will give them a clean slate legally. They'll be immune to lawsuits linked to OxyContin and opioids, so will hundreds of businesses and trusts and other entities that are associated with the Sacklers. So really, this settlement creates a firewall around the Sackler's remaining financial empire. Hundreds of civil suits already filed against them will be blocked permanently.

KING: So the Sackler family and their businesses and their trusts would get protection from a bankruptcy court. But they haven't filed for bankruptcy. Why would that be allowed?

MANN: Yeah. This is confusing. And it's a question that's getting a lot of attention right now. Two-dozen state attorneys general around the country have objected to exactly this part of the plan. They say, in effect, this is an overreach by the bankruptcy court that would improperly limit their authority to hold the Sacklers accountable in court. They say other wealthy Americans accused of serious wrongdoing will follow this precedent and use similar strategies in bankruptcy court to block other lawsuits, again, without ever being required to file for bankruptcy. Some legal scholars are echoing those concerns, saying this Purdue Pharma case shows that the bankruptcy system is broken. Again, it's important in all of this to say, the Sacklers, they maintain they did nothing wrong.

KING: Now, in the meantime, there are also many other separate opioid trials underway around this country involving lots of other companies.

MANN: Yeah. There's a big reckoning going on right now for the opioid crisis and what role companies played in all of this. And, in fact, some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. - major Fortune 500 firms like AmerisourceBergen, Johnson & Johnson and Walmart - they earned huge profits from opioid sales even as overdose deaths and addiction surged. These trials now underway are expected to test whether they're legally liable for all of that. And the companies deny wrongdoing. But tens of billions of dollars are at stake. This really could approach the scale of the tobacco industry payouts of the 1990s.

KING: Wow. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thank you, Brian. We appreciate it.

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

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