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Sackler family accused in new suit of causing opioid crisis

More than 500 US cities and counties are claiming Purdue Pharma engaged in misleading and illegal marketing of OxyContin.Toby Talbot/Associated Press/File 2013/Associated Press

The billionaire family that owns opioid-maker Purdue Pharma LP has been accused by local governments in a new lawsuit of causing the nationwide public-health crisis involving pain-killing medicines that has left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from overdoses.

More than 500 US cities and counties accused Purdue and eight members of Richard Sackler’s family of racketeering, claiming the company engaged in misleading and illegal marketing of OxyContin. It’s one of a handful of lawsuits to name the Sacklers as individual defendants in the sweeping opioid litigation.

The family has been thrust into the spotlight recently when details of its involvement in Purdue’s OxyContin marketing efforts were made public in a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. In the wake of a wave of negative headlines, Britain’s National Portrait Galley said this week it declined a $1.3 million donation from the Sacklers’ charitable arm.

“This nation is facing an unprecedented opioid addiction epidemic that was initiated and perpetuated by the Sackler defendants for their own financial gain,” lawyers for local governments said in a complaint filed Monday in Manhattan federal court.


“This complaint is part of a continuing effort by contingency-fee counsel to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis in the United States, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,’’ Robert Josephson, a Purdue spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

“These baseless allegations place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis, and we deny them,’’ the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler families said in an emailed statement. They also noted OxyContin sales “represented a tiny portion of the opioid market.’’

According to a 2017 investigation conducted by then Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, more than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015, with a third of those deaths caused by prescription opioids including OxyContin and Insys Therapeutics Inc.’s Subsys.


Other cities and counties, including New York City and Suffolk County, New York, have named the family as individual defendants in their cases.

The suit -- filed by some of the same lawyers who are leading the litigation against opioid makers and distributors consolidated in federal court in Cleveland -- targets the family for making billions of dollars off OxyContin by pushing it on doctors for more than a decade. Those cases are seeking to recoup billions spent to address the fallout from the opioid crisis, which claims the lives of 100 Americans daily.

More than 30 states also have sued Purdue and other drugmakers, such as Johnson & Johnson and Endo International Plc, along with distributors such as McKesson Corp., seeking to hold them accountable for tax dollars consumed by the opioid epidemic. Purdue and J&J face the first of those cases to come to trial in Oklahoma in May.

Family members such as Richard Sackler, Purdue’s former chief executive, created a “public nuisance” through the company’s relentless OxyContin marketing for unapproved uses, according to the New York suit.

Family members directed Purdue employees to dupe doctors into believing the painkillers weren’t addictive and could be used to create an “enhanced lifestyle,” according to the suit. The Sacklers “knew about the dangers of prescription opioids and pushed to increase sales despite the devastating consequences of the public health crisis,” attorneys for the local governments said.


Other family members named in the lawsuit are: Beverly Sackler, David Sackler, Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, Jonathan Sackler, Kathe Sackler, Mortimer Sackler and Theresa Sackler. Some of the family members are former Purdue board members. There are no family members on the current board.

The family members “sought to conceal” their involvement with the OxyContin marketing program and “are responsible for addiction, overdose, and death that damaged millions of lives,” the cities and counties allege. They say the family “should be held accountable now.”

The case is Baldwin County, AL v. Richard Sackler, 19-cv-2421, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).