Opioid lawsuit targets rich family behind drug that fueled US crisis

Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, accused of fueling addiction while boosting profits

The prescription painkiller OxyContin at a pharmacy. The lawsuit takes the unusual step of personally naming the company executives.
The prescription painkiller OxyContin at a pharmacy. The lawsuit takes the unusual step of personally naming the company executives. Photograph: George Frey/Reuters

The state of Massachusetts on Tuesday sued the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, which has been blamed for spawning America’s opioids crisis, naming leading executives and members of the multibillionaire Sackler family that owns the pharmaceutical company.

The lawsuit accuses the company, Purdue Pharma, of spinning a “web of illegal deceit” to fuel the deadly drug abuse crisis while boosting profits.

Purdue Pharma is already defending lawsuits from several states and local governments, but Massachusetts is the first state to take the unusual step of personally naming the company’s executives in a complaint, the state attorney general, Maura Healey, said. It names 16 current and former executives and board members, including the chief executive, Craig Landau, and eight members across three generations of the Sackler family that wholly owns Purdue.

The lawsuit alleges Purdue deceived patients and doctors about the risks of opioids, pushed prescribers to keep patients on the drugs longer and aggressively targeted vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and veterans.

“Their strategy was simple: the more drugs they sold, the more money they made, and the more people died,” Healey said on Tuesday.

Purdue, based in Stamford, Connecticut, issued a statement saying it vigorously denied all the allegations and looked forward to presenting “substantial defenses” to the claims in the lawsuit.

“We share the attorney general’s concern about the opioid crisis. We are disappointed, however, that in the midst of good faith negotiations with many states, the commonwealth [of Massachusetts] has decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process. We will continue to work collaboratively with the states toward bringing meaningful solutions,” it stated.

Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, has sued the maker of OxyContin over the deadly opioid crisis.
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Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, has sued the maker of OxyContin over the deadly opioid crisis. Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

Purdue, along with some other painkiller makers and drug distributors, is currently facing more than 300 lawsuits from city and county authorities across the country. The lawsuits have been corralled into one multi-district case in a federal court in Ohio. The judge in that case has been pushing for a huge, quick settlement to compensate victims and assist in what the government has admitted is a public health crisis, in the way the so-called “Big Tobacco settlement” happened against cigarette companies in the 1990s. But some experts are calling for the case to go to trial in order to oblige the pharmaceutical companies to produce more evidence in the discovery process.

The company is also being sued separately by more than 15 states, but this is the first that names individual members of the Sackler family, who are currently or were formerly on the board of Purdue.

The Sacklers being sued are: Theresa and Beverly, the widows of the brothers Mortimer and Raymond Sackler who built the company into the narcotics giant it is today; Ilene, Kathe and Mortimer David Alfons Sackler, three of Mortimer’s children; Jonathan and Richard Sackler, Raymond’s two sons; and David Sackler, Raymond’s grandson. These family members and a number of their siblings and children are collectively worth an estimated $13bn, according to Forbes, with the vast bulk of the fortune generated from sales of OxyContin. Feuding family members have mostly declined to talk about the opioids crisis and avoid discussing their links to it.

Purdue agreed to pay $19.5m in 2007, but did not admit wrongdoing, to settle lawsuits with 26 states – including Massachusetts – and the District of Columbia after being accused of aggressively marketing OxyContin to doctors while downplaying the risk of addiction.

The Massachusetts lawsuit, which was filed in the Suffolk superior court, alleges that Purdue’s leadership encouraged the company’s “deadly misconduct” while lining their pockets. The sale of more than 70m doses of prescription opioids in the state over the last decade brought in more than $500m for the company, Healey says.

“It was Purdue’s executives who led and directed this illegal business model, leading to addiction and deception to enrich a few while leaving a path of devastation and destruction in its wake,” she said.

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