States say they'll keep fighting Sackler family in court

Attorneys general are divided on whether Wednesday's settlement against Purdue Pharma goes far enough, but agree the fight is far from over. 

Jessica Hill/AP
Family and friends who have lost loved ones to opioids protest outside Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn., in August 2018. On Sept. 11, 2019, the OxyContin producer reached a tentative settlement with thousands of local governments.

Courtroom showdowns still face OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and the family that owns it, the Sacklers.

But after a tentative settlement reached Wednesday with thousands of local governments and more than 20 states, the fight will be less about the damage done by the company and more over how to divide its assets.

The agreement could be worth up to $12 billion over time. That amount includes future profits for the company, the value of overdose antidotes it's developing, and cash payments of $3 billion to $4.5 billion from the Sacklers, the wealthy family that owns Purdue Pharma. The amount is contingent on the sale of the family's international drug company, Mundipharma, which, like Purdue, has been criticized for overselling the benefits of its powerful prescription opioid painkillers and understating the risks.

The tentative agreement and expected bankruptcy filing would almost certainly remove Purdue from the first federal trial over the opioids epidemic, scheduled to begin next month in Cleveland. There, a jury is to consider claims from two Ohio counties against a group of drugmakers, distributors, and one pharmacy chain, Walgreens. A losing verdict for Purdue could irreparably damage the privately held company.

Critics are fuming that the deal won't be worth close to the stated $12 billion, that it won't force internal company documents to be made public, and that it doesn't do enough to hold the company or its owners responsible. "The idea that Purdue might get away without having to admit any wrongdoing flies in the face of every definition of justice and accountability known to the human race. It's unconscionable," said Ryan Hampton, a Los Angeles-based advocate for people in recovery from opioid addiction.

For the Stamford, Connecticut-based company, one of the next steps is a bankruptcy filing, which would likely end lawsuits filed against the company by some 2,000 counties, municipalities, Native American tribes, unions, and hospitals, along with nearly every state.

Parties that don't sign on to the settlement could raise objections in bankruptcy court – and some states have made it clear that that's their plan.

"Far too many lives have been lost or devastated in Rhode Island as a result of the opioid crisis," Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha said in a statement Wednesday.

He added, "We are committed to continuing to aggressively pursue our claims against Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers."

The state was already suing some members of the Sackler family, which was listed by Forbes magazine in 2016 as one of the 20 richest in the country. On Wednesday, it added more family members to the suit. More than 20 other states also have legal claims against family members, and many plan to keep pursuing them.

On the other side, several attorneys general said the agreement was a better way to ensure compensation from Purdue and the Sacklers than taking their chances if Purdue files for bankruptcy on its own.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said the deal "was the quickest and surest way to get immediate relief for Arizona and for the communities that have been harmed by the opioid crisis and the actions of the Sackler family."

But even advocates of the deal cautioned that it's not yet complete.

"There's still a lot of telephone calls going on. I think we see the outlines of a thing that might be, but it's not yet," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in an interview.

Opioid addiction has contributed to the deaths of some 400,000 Americans over the past two decades, hitting many rural communities particularly hard.

In a statement after Wednesday's announcement, the company said that it "continues to work with all plaintiffs on reaching a comprehensive resolution to its opioid litigation that will deliver billions of dollars and vital opioid overdose rescue medicines to communities across the country impacted by the opioid crisis."

Members of the Sackler family said in a statement there are good reasons for governments to join the settlement: "This is the most effective way to address the urgency of the current public health crisis, and to fund real solutions, not endless litigation."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Carla K. Johnson in Seattle; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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