Lawsuits ramp up pressure on U.S. family that owns opioid company

The company’s flagship drug, OxyContin, was the first drug that used a narcotic in a time-release form

Lawsuits ramp up pressure on U.S. family that owns opioid company

The legal pressure on the prominent family behind the company that makes OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic, is likely to get more intense.

The Sackler family came under heavy scrutiny this week when a legal filing in a Massachusetts case gave detailed allegations that they and company executives sought to push prescriptions of the drug and downplay its risks. Those revelations are likely to be a preview of the claims in a series of expanding legal challenges.

Members of the family that controls Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma already are defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York’s Suffolk County.

Paul Hanly, a lawyer representing the county, said he expects to add the Sacklers to other opioid suits filed across the country. He explained last year that he was targeting the family, known for its donations to some of the world’s great museums and universities, in part because they took “tens of billions” of dollars out of Purdue.

Looming as potentially the biggest legal and financial risk for the family is a massive consolidated federal case playing out in Ohio.

More than 1,000 government entities have sued Purdue, along with other drugmakers and distributors, claiming they are partly culpable for a drug overdose crisis that resulted in a record 72,000 deaths in 2017. The majority of those deaths were from legal or illicit opioids.

The company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts claims also could be evidence in the Ohio lawsuits, which are being overseen by a federal judge. The allegations ramp up pressure on the industry — and perhaps the Sacklers — to reach a settlement, said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who studies the role of state attorneys general.

READ MORE: B.C. opioid crisis to get same world-renowned treatment approach as HIV/AIDS

READ MORE: Health minister announces $72M in emergency funding for B.C.’s opioid crisis

Having Sackler family members named as defendants in Massachusetts “indicates that the government attorneys believe they have the ‘smoking guns’ necessary to broaden the potential liability of those at the top of the organization,” he said in an email.

The allegations could tarnish a name that is best known for its generosity to museums worldwide including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a Sackler wing, and London’s Tate Modern. The Sackler name also is on a gallery at the Smithsonian, a wing of galleries at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and a museum at Beijing’s Peking University. The family’s best known and most generous donor, Arthur M. Sackler, died nearly a decade before OxyContin was released.

The Cleveland-based judge, Dan Polster, has been pushing for a settlement since he took over the federal cases a year ago, arguing that the parties involved should find ways to end this man-made crisis, rather than hold years of trials. A court order prohibits participants from discussing most aspects of settlement talks publicly.

In its lawsuit filed last year, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office went after members of the Sackler family and Purdue, which is structured as a partnership and is not publicly traded.

The company’s flagship drug, OxyContin, was the first of a generation of drugs that used a narcotic painkiller in a time-release form. That meant each pill had a larger amount of drug in it than other versions and could get abusers a more intense high if they defeated the time-release process.

Many of the attorney general’s specific allegations — based on company documents — were blacked out at the request of Purdue and the Sackler family. The state recently filed a new version of its complaint that made public many of their allegations for the first time.

The state is asserting that Richard Sackler, a son of a company founder and at the time a senior vice-president for Purdue, as well as other family members pushed selling OxyContin even when they knew it could cause problems. When the drug was first sold in 1996, the filing said, Sackler told the sales force “the launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”

In 2007, the company and three current and former executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they deceived regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s addiction risks. The company agreed to fines of $634 million.

The next year, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit, the company pressed ahead with a new version of the drug designed to be harder for abusers to crush. It did so without first conducting trials and despite a warning from the company’s CEO that the new version “will not stop patients from the simple act of taking too many pills.”

Purdue responded to the Massachusetts filing with a strong statement: “In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than 2 per cent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis, the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl.”

A spokesman for the Sackler family declined to comment separately.

Abbe Gluck, a Yale law professor who is following the federal case in Ohio, said the documents could make Purdue seem more liable or bring the Sackler family into the case in a way that presents obstacles to a settlement. But she said that might not change things for the other companies involved.

“The drug companies have an interest in settling their own claims globally,” she said.

Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Demonstrators lined Hwy 16 May 5 to mark the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Deb Meissner photo)
VIDEO: Smithers gathering marks Red Dress Day honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Approximately 70 people lined Hwy 16, drumming, singing and holding up placards

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

The road to Telegraph Creek (Hwy 51) was closed April 15 due to a washout. On May 4, the road was opened to light-duty passenger vehicles during specific times. (BC Transportation and Infrastructure/Facebook)
Telegraph Creek Road opens for light-duty vehicles

Road has been closed since April 15 due to a washout

FILE – Residents of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory southwest of Montreal continue to monitor a blockade leading to blocked railroad tracks that pass through their community as they protest in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on Sunday, March 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
B.C. Supreme Court rejects Wet’suwet’en bid to toss LNG pipeline certificate

Opposition last year by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs set off Canada-wide rail blockades

On any given day, Brenda Mallory can be found holding court in her front yard on her acreage near Tyhee Lake. (Thom Barker photo)
Spice of Brenda: Our long-time columnist gets frank (when wasn’t she?)

Brenda Mallory has packed a lot of creativity into her life

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Friday, July 11, 2008. The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery today and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver, Quebec shipyards to each get new heavy icebreaker, cost remains a mystery

Vancouver’s Seaspan Shipyards and Quebec-based Chantier Davie will each build an icebreaker for the coast guard

Most Read