Sackler family, accused of profiting from opioid crisis, sued by New Jersey

"They cared more about money than they cared about patients," NJ AG said.

May 30, 2019, 4:40 PM

The “callous” choices eight members of Purdue Pharma’s founding family made "caused much of the opioid epidemic," New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal alleged Thursday in a new lawsuit.

The lawsuit named, among other family members, former Purdue Pharma chief executive Dr. Richard Sackler, who, along with his relatives, allegedly masterminded what the lawsuit called a strategy "that changed the way the medical profession viewed opioid prescribing."

Fueled by what the New Jersey attorney general's office called an ambition "to become unimaginably rich," investigators alleged the family pushed a message that health care providers should prescribe more opioids to treat chronic pain. Along the way, Purdue Pharma’s messaging reduced concerns about the risks associated with opioids and promoted its products as “safe, effective and appropriate for long-term use and for moderate pain conditions,” the lawsuit said.

"The Sackler family built a multi-billion-dollar drug empire based on addiction,” said Grewal. "Despite knowing the harms that would result, the Sacklers drove Purdue to pursue deceitful sales campaigns for OxyContin and other highly addictive opioid painkillers, campaigns that were dutifully carried out by a small army of the company’s employees. Our communities are still reeling from the epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths caused by their misconduct."

The lawsuit, brought under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and False Claims Act, alleged that each named Sackler family member – Jonathan D. Sackler; Dr. Kathe Sackler; Ilene Sackler Lefcourt; Mortimer D.A. Sackler; Beverly Sackler; Theresa Sackler; and David A. Sackler, in addition to Dr. Richard Sackler – took part in a campaign to deceive doctors about the risks and benefits of OxyContin.

The suit also alleged Purdue failed to disclose it had no studies to support most of its promotional claims, including one that said opioids were not very addictive, that addiction risks were easily managed and that long-term opioid usage improved patients’ daily function and quality of life.

“The Sacklers were not satisfied with merely raking in millions and millions of dollars. They wanted billions,” said Grewal. “They cared more about money than they cared about patients, the public or the truth."

In a statement, the Sackler family strongly denied the allegations.

“This baseless lawsuit is yet another misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis. We strongly deny these allegations, which are inconsistent with the factual record, and will vigorously defend against them. We have always acted properly and are committed to supporting solutions that save lives by preventing addiction and abuse of prescription medicines and treating those who are suffering from addiction," the family said in a statement.

"Solving this crisis requires collaboration and focus on the real problems our nation needs to address- it will not be solved through litigation. Government data makes clear that the opioid crisis is growing rapidly because of illicit fentanyl smuggled in from China and Mexico – and headline-seeking lawsuits like this only distract from the important task of identifying real solutions to that crisis,” the statement continued.

While the company is not named in the New Jersey complaint, Purdue is currently facing approximately 2,000 lawsuits for alleged deceptive marketing and contributing to the current U.S. opioid crisis. Individual members of the Sackler family who were involved in the businesses are being sued in a small fraction of these cases.

This May 8, 2007, file photo shows the Purdue Pharma logo at its offices in Stamford, Conn.
Douglas Healey/AP, FILE

In a statement to ABC News earlier this month responding to lawsuits filed by several other states, Purdue said it "vigorously denies the allegations in the lawsuits filed today [May 16] and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks."

"These complaints are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system. The states cannot link the conduct alleged to the harm described, and so they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories," the statement said.

Purdue also noted that a Burleigh County District Court judge in North Dakota recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by that state's attorney general with regard to the company's alleged role in the opioid crisis.

"The recent decision by the North Dakota court to dismiss all the claims filed by the Attorney General of North Dakota against Purdue is a significant legal victory for the Company that has potential far-reaching ramifications for both the state lawsuits filed today and for the claims pending in the multi-district litigation (MDL)," Purdue said in its statement.

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