Sackler Family Sued by New York Over Opioid `Catastrophe’

By Erik Larson | March 28, 2019

Purdue Pharma LP and its billionaire owners, the Sackler family, were sued by New York state for triggering an addiction epidemic with their marketing of the Oxycontin painkiller, just two days after they agreed to pay $270 million to settle similar claims by Oklahoma.

The suit, filed Thursday in Manhattan, claims Purdue and its biggest competitors and distributors, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., caused “this disaster” by pushing doctors to issue prescriptions and lying about the risk of addiction.

“One of the manufacturing defendants — Purdue — undoubtedly tipped the first domino,” New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat who took office in January, said in the complaint. “The others quickly went in on the scheme to expand the opioids market through a predatory campaign of lies, payoffs and high-pressure sales tactics.”

The lawsuit adds to the potentially massive legal liability that has led Purdue to threaten bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, states and local governments have recently targeted the Sackler family’s wealth to recoup billions spent on the social costs of opioid addiction. More than 1,600 lawsuits against opioid makers have been consolidated before a judge in Ohio, and other cases are pending in state courts.

The Sacklers are accused of manufacturing the crisis. Among the details in James’s 258-page state-court complaint are quoted remarks from the 1996 launch party for OxyContin, where former Purdue Chief Executive Officer Richard Sackler allegedly asked the audience to imagine a series of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and blizzards.

“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” Sackler said, according to the complaint. “The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense and white.”

James, whose claims mirror those made in other lawsuits, calls the defendants “unrepentant,” and lays out how each of the individuals and companies allegedly participated in a scheme that ballooned out of control. The defendants have denied wrongdoing.

She said at a press conference Thursday that the state will seek financial penalties from the family and the disgorgement of “wrongfully obtained profits.” She said the family has regularity been moving its money out of the company to shield it from possible recovery.

Other Cases

In another lawsuit this month accusing the Sacklers of causing the crisis, the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler families rejected similar claims. “These baseless allegations place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis, and we deny them,” the families said, while noting that OxyContin sales “represented a tiny portion of the opioid market.”

The state of Massachusetts have also sued the family and Purdue.

About 400,000 Americans have died since 1999 from opioid-related overdoses, with another 130 perishing daily, the state said.

The Oklahoma settlement by Purdue and the Sacklers came two months before the scheduled start of a trial against the company, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Inc. and other opioid makers. The trial is set for May against companies other than Purdue.

The Drug-Maker Defendants in New York’s Case:

J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and its Janssen Pharmaceuticals subsidiary. Mallinckrodt Plc, an Irish company headquartered in Staines-Upon-Thames, Britain. Endo International Plc, with global headquarters in Dublin. Teva, with headquarters in Petah Tikva, Israel, and units Cephalon Inc. and Actavis Pharma Inc. Allergan Plc, which is based in Dublin.

The Distributor Defendants:

McKesson Corp., based in San Francisco. AmerisourceBergen Corp., based in Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania. Cardinal Health Inc., based in Dublin, Ohio. Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc., based in Rochester, New York.

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