Sackler Family Could Be Swamped With Lawsuits Over Opioid Epidemic

The Sackler family, who owned Purdue Pharma that created the prescription painkiller OxyContin, is now open to facing lawsuits after a federal judge tossed out a roughly $4.5 billion settlement that shielded family members who stand accused of contributing to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic.

In a written opinion on Thursday, Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York said the Bankruptcy Court that approved the settlement lacked the authority to grant the Sackler family such protections.

Purdue Pharma on Thursday night issued a statement saying that it would appeal the ruling.

The company said the decision would "delay, and perhaps end, the ability of creditors, communities, and individuals to receive billions in value to abate the opioid crisis."

"These funds are needed now more than ever as overdose rates hit record-highs, and we are confident that we can successfully appeal this decision and deliver desperately needed funds to the communities and individuals suffering in the midst of this crisis," said Steve Miller, chairman of the Purdue Pharma board of directors.

The company also said that it would attempt to create another plan that its creditors would agree to.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong welcomed the decision, saying that it marked "a seismic victory for justice and accountability" and would "re-open the deeply flawed Purdue bankruptcy and force the Sackler family to confront the pain and devastation they have caused."

Purdue Pharma released OxyContin in 1996, and the Sackler family has largely been accused of playing a role in the nationwide opioid crisis that has killed an estimated 500,000 people in the U.S. in the last couple of decades.

The Sackler family and the company have denied the allegations.

Opioids are a drug class that includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, and synthetic products such as fentanyl.

As the company faced thousands of lawsuits in September 2019, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy, but eventually came to a deal with its creditors through the bankruptcy court, agreeing to pay roughly $4.5 billion, and forfeiting ownership of the company.

In return, the company would be transformed into an entity that would both use profits made from selling opioids to tackle the ongoing crisis, and manufacture new cheap or free anti-overdose and anti-addiction drugs.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland also issued a statement praising the decision on Thursday.

"The bankruptcy court did not have the authority to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family," Garland said.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he was "prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to ensure true accountability for the Sackler family."

"There cannot be two forms of justice—one for ordinary Americans and a different one for billionaires," Ferguson said in a statement.

Opioids played a substantial role in drug overdose deaths in the United States in a 12-month period ending in April 2021, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

According to the CDC, the country recorded more than 100,000 reported drug overdose deaths, an increase of 28.5 percent from the previous 12 months.

President Joe Biden called the figure "a tragic milestone" and said that his administration would urge states to roll out laws easing access to naloxone, a drug that can block or rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

Members of the Sackler family
From left to right: Arthur Sackler, Laurie Sackler, Neoma Sackler, Jacqueline Sackler and Mortimer Sackler. A judge on Thursday tossed out a roughly $4.5 billion settlement that shielded members of the Sackler family who stand accused of contributing to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic. Sergi Alexander for Animal Medical Center and David M. Benett/Getty Images

UPDATE 12/17/21 5:34 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include new pictures.