Purdue settles opioid lawsuits
September 12, 2019
CASPER — Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and the public face of the national opioid epidemic that has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths, has reached a $3 billion settlement agreement with thousands of cities, counties, tribes and other entities across the country, including several in Wyoming.
The agreement was reached Wednesday morning between attorneys and the company, said Jason Ochs, a Jackson-based attorney who represents several Wyoming cities and counties suing Purdue and other companies tied to opioid production and distribution. Under the terms of the deal, Purdue will pay $3 billion over the course of seven years and will declare bankruptcy.
A new company will be created and will continue to sell OxyContin, the powerful opioid painkiller that was the crown jewel of Purdue’s multibillion-dollar business. But any profi ts that come from the sale of the pill will be added to the settlement amount, Ochs said.
The New York Times reported earlier Wednesday that there had been a settlement and that the Sackler family — the patriarchs of which founded Purdue and made it into a machine that marketed and sold opioids — would pay the $3 billion settlement. Ochs said he hadn’t heard the two — Purdue and Sacklers — distinguished and that he was considering them one and the same.
Ochs represents the cities of Casper, Cheyenne, Riverton and Rock Springs, as well as Carbon County. Sweetwater County, the city of Green River, and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes have also filed federal lawsuits against Purdue and the other pharmaceutical companies. Messages left for their attorneys were not immediately returned Wednesday, but it’s almost certain those cases have settled as well.
“It’s important because (Purdue’s) the first of many defendants to fall,” Ochs said. “And most importantly because it preserves cash for help in this epidemic, which, a bankruptcy would have likely been disastrous.”
While the cases had all been filed in Wyoming federal court initially, they were later moved to a federal court in Ohio for collective workup. The settlement comes as Purdue worked to avoid the first of those cases going to trial later this year.
The settlement effectively ends Purdue Pharma as it existed for decades. The company most known for its opioids will be felled by lawsuits alleging that it knowingly mismarketed opioids and, lawyers argued, sparked an epidemic that contributed to the deaths of more than 47,600 people in 2017 alone. Purdue — and the Sackler family — became the public face of the epidemic, which has rivaled the AIDS crisis in its body count. They were a company and a family that, critics said, placed profits over the safety of the American public.
The state of Wyoming has also filed a lawsuit against Purdue, albeit in state court. It’s unclear if that lawsuit has also been settled. The Laramie County District Court clerk’s office told the Star-Tribune that there had been no new filings in the case. State Attorney General Bridget Hill said in an email to the Star-Tribune that the case “is currently still pending” and that she couldn’t comment.
It’s unclear how much each entity in the lawsuits will receive as part of the settlement. Ochs said the court will have to approve a “matrix” to determine that, and factors like population, deaths related to opioids, and how many pills were distributed in that municipality or county will all be taken into account.
It’s also unclear if there will be strings attached to how the money is spent. Ochs said it will be “earmarked for helping and curbing the epidemic.”
The settlement doesn’t end the cases. The litigation continues against more than a dozen defendants, including Walmart, Walgreens and the maker of fentanyl, among others. Ochs said he suspected the Purdue settlement would probably prompt similar endings from the other companies.
“However, whether they will be global, meaning everybody, or just the Ohio counties that are pending in front of the court for trial, that is unknown at this time,” he said.
Earlier this year, Purdue settled a lawsuit in Oklahoma for $270 million. Johnson & Johnson, another defendant in the lawsuits, did not settle and instead took Oklahoma to trial, where the company lost and was ordered to pay more than $500 million by a judge there.
Ochs said he thought the Oklahoma judgment played a role in Purdue’s decision to settle. He said the Ohio counties that were set to go to trial represented an even bigger risk to Purdue and others than the entire state of Oklahoma.