Sackler Family Bids For Immunity In Future Opioid Lawsuits

The Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma are facing over 2,500 lawsuits related to the opioid crisis. The Sackler family is attempting to negotiate a rare bankruptcy procedure known as non-consensual third-part release. Through this procedure the Sackler family would pay $4.2 billion in exchange for complete immunity from future lawsuits. The procedure would shield them and their assets from lawsuits connected to the opioid crisis, offering them bankruptcy-adjacent protections without requiring them to actually declare bankruptcy.

The Sackler family’s proposed settlement is largely viewed a quick-fix. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain, who presides over the case in White Plains, New York, has reasoned that the proposed settlement has the potential to expedite financial relief to communities still struggling to recover from the opioid crisis — an epidemic that has already claimed more than 450,000 lives. On 24 March 2021, Drain signed an adjunction protecting the Sackler family from further lawsuits related to the opioid crisis until 21 April 2021. In response to the adjunction, on 29 April 2021, several state attorney generals and the attorney general of Washington, D.C. filed a brief that described the proposed settlement as “unprecedented” and “unjust.” A group of prominent public officials and activists have also voiced opposition to the Sackler family’s offer, and a division of the Justice Department filed a brief questioning whether the bankruptcy court should have the authority to oversee such a case.

Oxycontin is an opioid drug — a chemical cousin of morphine and twice as strong. The drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma is owned by the wealthy Sackler family. The Sackler family’s vast wealth constitutes an empire valued at roughly $11 billion. In the past, Purdue Pharma pled guilty on two separate occasions, most recently in 2020, to criminal conduct related to the marketing and distribution of its drug oxycontin. As part of its 2020 plea deal, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to three criminal charges in federal court, and the Sacklers paid over $200 million to settle civil charges. No executives from the company were charged or even named in the lawsuit. Purdue Pharma previously filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The company was thereafter dissolved, and its assets were handed over to a trust. The Sackler family continues to deny any wrongdoing.

The many businesses run by the Sackler family have a long history of shielding themselves from public view and manufacturing opacity when it comes to their practices. During the 2020 lawsuit, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to criminal charges and acknowledged its role in the opioid crisis, but no individual from the company or the Sackler family admitted wrongdoing. The proposed settlement seems another ploy in this direction. Now, however, public view of the Sackler name has dramatically shifted. Many members of the Sackler family are renowned philanthropists, and others hold prominent places in public life and the arts, such as Emmy-winning filmmaker Madeleine Sackler and businesswoman-turned-fashion-designer Joss Sackler.

Many universities, museums, and medical institutions have buildings or wings that bear the Sackler name, these include the British Museum, Columbia University, Harvard University, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, Oxford University, and Yale University. Some of those institutions have recently dropped the Sackler name, for example The Louvre and New York University. Many have also stated that they plan to refuse future financial contributions from the Sacklers. Culturally, it seems the opioid crises has caught-up with the Sackler family and the individuals who comprise it. This so much is clear based on public sentiment.

What is not yet clear is whether the law will catch up with them. Attorney General for the State of New York Letitia James is pushing a lawsuit that would force the Sacklers to reimburse state and local governments that spend more than $1 billion annually on law enforcement, rehabilitation, and health costs relating to the opioid crisis. The next few months will shine light on how much the Sackler family will be forced to pay-up.

Jaclyn Pahl