New York Files Suit Against Billionaire Family Over Opioid Crisis

Justin Sangeorge, a social worker and recovering opioid addict, speaks at a news conference, Thursday, March 28, 2019, about a New York state lawsuit against opioid drug manufacturers and distributors. Behind him are New York Attorney General Letitia James, left, and drug abuse treatment center director Gary Butchen. New York on Thursday sued the billionaire family behind OxyContin, joining a growing list of state and local governments alleging the drugmaker sparked the nation’s opioid crisis by putting hunger for profits over patient safety. (AP Photo/Jennifer Peltz)

(CN) – Amid the state’s nine opioid deaths a day, New York brought a federal complaint Thursday against the billionaire family that controls one of the largest opioid-producing companies in the country, claiming that Purdue Pharma moved hundreds of millions of dollars to the family’s own pockets.

Just two days after Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma settled with Oklahoma for $270 million, New York Attorney General Letitia James expanded upon a lawsuit filed last year to include the Sackler family as defendants. James called the lawsuit “extensive,” adding that it “leaves no stone unturned.”

The state claims Purdue, and the eight family members believed to control the company, gave rise to the state’s opioid crisis by downplaying the risks of addiction to the painkillers in collaboration with other drug makers and working around regulations that limit orders for opioids.

“As the Sackler family and the other defendants grew richer, New Yorkers’ health grew poorer, and our state was left to foot the bill,” James said at a news conference Thursday. “The manufacturers and distributors of opioids are to blame for this crisis, and it is past time they take responsibility.”

Amid an increasing number of state lawsuits against Purdue, New York claims the company distributed money to the family in order to avoid paying any potential damages in the future.

“Purdue, at the direction of the Sacklers, fraudulently conveyed hundreds of millions of dollars of Purdue’s profits from opioids to the Sackler Families each year during the relevant time period despite Purdue’s and the Sacklers’ knowledge that they faced certain, and significant, liabilities because of the multitude of litigations against Purdue by state attorneys general, including New York’s Attorney General,” the state alleges.

The eight Sackler family members all served as Purdue board members and still hold shares in the company.

In a statement released Thursday, a Sackler family spokesperson said the family strongly deny the allegations.

“Expanding this baseless lawsuit to include former directors of Purdue Pharma is a misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis,” the statement said.

Purdue also released its own statement regarding the lawsuit, which it was originally named as a defendant last year.

“Such serious allegations demand clear evidence linking the conduct alleged to the harm described,” the written statement said. “But we believe the state fails to show such causation and offers little evidence to support its sweeping legal claims.”

Justin Sangeorge, a New York social worker, appeared with James at the news conference to talk about his own experience with opioid addiction.

“I couldn’t believe how readily available pharmaceutical drugs were,” said the recovering Sangeorge.

“We hold accountable drug dealers, drug traffickers, I know, but the pharmaceutical companies hide behind this legitimate enterprise, and as far as I’m concerned, are just as guilty as a drug trafficker or a drug cartel,” Sangeorge said.

While the company faces possible bankruptcy amid almost 2,000 lawsuits across the country, its settlement agreement with Oklahoma could signal a willingness to settle in New York as well. James said that while the state was open to a settlement, Purdue has not approached the subject with her.

Of the $270 million settlement with Oklahoma, almost $200 million will be spent on creating a National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Purdue denied any responsibility for opioid addiction as part of terms of the settlement.

As the Sackler family faces more lawsuits, they also find themselves shunned by museums and art galleries that the family is known to patronize. The Guggenheim in New York and Tate galleries in Britain announced they would no longer accept donations from the Sacklers.

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