Members of the multi-billionaire philanthropic Sackler family that owns the maker of prescription painkiller OxyContin are facing mass litigation and likely criminal investigation over the opioids crisis still ravaging America.
Some of the Sacklers wholly own Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, the company that created and sells the legal narcotic OxyContin, a drug at the center of the opioid epidemic that now kills almost 200 people a day across the US.
Suffolk county in Long Island, New York, recently sued several family members personally over the overdose deaths and painkiller addiction blighting local communities. Now lawyers warn that action will be a catalyst for hundreds of other US cities, counties and states to follow suit.
At the same time, prosecutors in Connecticut and New York are understood to be considering criminal fraud and racketeering charges against leading family members over the way OxyContin has allegedly been dangerously over-prescribed and deceptively marketed to doctors and the public over the years, legal sources told the Guardian last week.
“This is essentially a crime family … drug dealers in nice suits and dresses,” said Paul Hanly, a New York city lawyer who represents Suffolk county and is also a lead attorney in a huge civil action playing out in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, involving opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The Sacklers are a wealthy but feuding clan.
The Sackler name is prominently attached to prestigious cultural and academic institutions that have accepted millions donated by the family in the US and the UK. It is now inscribed on a lawsuit alleging members of the family “actively participated in conspiracy and fraud to portray the prescription painkiller as non-addictive, even though they knew it was dangerously addictive”.
Named in the Suffolk county complaint filed in New York state court are Richard, Jonathan, Kathe and Mortimer David Alfons Sackler, and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt – adult children of deceased brothers Mortimer and Raymond Sackler who developed Purdue Pharma and launched OxyContin in the mid 1990s.
Also named are Theresa and Beverly Sackler, the widows of those two brothers, and David Sackler, son of Richard. Theresa Sackler lives in London and the others named lived in the US, mainly in New York and Connecticut.
These eight family members serve or have served on the board of Purdue. Forbes magazine estimates that a core group of 20 Sacklers in the Mortimer and Raymond branches of the secretive family, including the eight named above, are collectively worth $13bn.
Hanly said: “What Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have done to society through their aggressive peddling of opioids is unconscionable.”
OxyContin was originally widely marketed as a safe wonder drug because of the unique slow-release mechanism of its active ingredient, the narcotic oxycodone. But it turned out to be highly addictive and easily abused.
Suffolk county has already sued Purdue and then filed against the Sacklers in an amended complaint last month.
The Sacklers are one of the 20 wealthiest US families, worth around $14bn, according to Forbes.
The bulk of that fortune derives from the family’s privately owned pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma. The Connecticut-based firm invented and energetically marketed one of the most controversial opioids of the 21st century – OxyContin.
But most people know the Sackler name from the family’s philanthropic giving to arts institutions and elite academia, especially in the US and UK, where museum galleries and university departments are prominently display their names.
Purdue Pharma is wholly owned by the relatives of the late Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. They were two of the three Sackler brothers: sons of eastern European Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn who started a pharmaceutical empire in the 1950s. Their heirs mostly live in New York or London.
The eldest brother, Arthur, died in 1987, almost a decade before the launch of OxyContin. His stock options in Purdue were sold to Mortimer and Raymond and his heirs have distanced themselves from the opioid crisis, although Arthur’s controversial marketing strategy for earlier drugs was later adapted to promote OxyContin. Joanna Walters
Now Hanly and other high-profile lawyers working on opioid litigation expect the family members to be sued by name as part of the multi-district litigation in Ohio. In federal court, lawsuits filed by more than 1,200 cities, counties and municipalities across the US, against Purdue and other corporate defendants, have been brought together in the hands of federal judge Dan Polster.
The first trials are due next year in three bellwether cases from two Ohio counties and the city of Cleveland.
Purdue is also being sued by at least 30 states in state court. The first trial in that sequence is expected next spring in Louisiana.
“I’m assuming every single plaintiff’s attorney in the country will copy our complaint naming the Sacklers in the coming weeks,” said attorney Jayne Conroy of Simmons Hanly Conroy, who also represents Suffolk county and is involved in the litigation in Ohio, alongside colleague Paul Hanly.
Hanly said that the economic cost of the opioids crisis in the US, from healthcare to lost productivity, have been put at $1tn between 2002 and 2018, by some leading studies. “Other estimates put the current cost at up to $500bn a year,” he said.
According to a source familiar with the litigation, who cannot be named because they are disclosing confidential information, Purdue Pharma has been arguing behind closed doors to Polster that it can’t afford large-scale damages.
“Of course the company doesn’t have much money left in it because the Sacklers have taken it, they own it, they’ve siphoned it off over the years,” the source said.
Plaintiffs are now determined to make the Sacklers pay, even though their money is scattered in property, charitable foundations, trusts, a multitude of companies and overseas bank accounts.
“I don’t know where it all is yet, but I’ll find it,” Conroy said.
Beyond any civil penalties, some family members could face criminal charges in future.
“I know there are a couple of criminal investigations going on at the federal level, against Purdue, the Sacklers, other defendants, all of them. People are digging, US attorneys offices are conducting criminal investigations,” said one source.
Purdue and senior executives, but not the Sacklers, was prosecuted and pleaded guilty in federal criminal court in 2007 to misleading regulators, doctors and patients.
A spokesman for John Durham, the US attorney for Connecticut, declined to comment. Prosecutors for the southern and eastern federal districts of New York state did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the northern district of New York said the Department of Justice does not confirm, deny or comment on the existence of any investigation. A spokeswoman for the western district of New York declined to confirm or deny whether the US attorney is conducting a criminal investigation into the Sacklers. A spokesman for Purdue Pharma declined to comment on behalf of the company and the relevant members of the Sackler family.
Those same Sacklers were also sued by name in a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts in June. This alleges that Purdue, its directors and owners “deceived prescribers and patients to get more people to use Purdue’s opioid products, at higher doses, for longer periods” by misrepresenting and downplaying the addictive and deadly risks of the drug. And even claiming that OxyContin, which is derived from opium, was safer than paracetamol or ibuprofen, the common painkillers sold over the counter, the state alleges.
Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey told the Guardian that experts estimate that the epidemic cost the state almost $15bn in 2017 alone in lost productivity, public safety and healthcare, to say nothing of the human tragedy that has cost thousands of lives in that state alone.
She said she thought the Sacklers were “well aware” of the damage their drug was doing. “But for them it’s greed, it was all about profits over people … I feel very confident naming the family members,” she said.
Asked if Massachusetts was considering a criminal investigation of the company, its executives or owners, Healey said: “I’m focused on using my legal authority to make sure we get restitution for families … damages and penalties for illegal conduct and we are going to continue to pursue this in court.”
She added: To the extent they [the Sacklers] made their fortune on the backs of sick and vulnerable people, then they should turn it over. I have no sympathies for them.”
Relatives of Arthur Sackler, the older brother of Raymond and Mortimer, who died before OxyContin came to market, are not suspected of any wrongdoing in relation to the drug.
American art photographer Nan Goldin almost died from an addiction to OxyContin and is now in recovery. She leads a campaign to persuade cultural institutions to reject Sackler donations, and to shame the Sacklers into paying for treatment facilities for opioid dependency instead, not “reputation laundering” as she and other critics dub their philanthropy.
She said the prospect of any criminal charges against family members was “great” and called the family “complicit” in the opioids crisis.
“I’m sick of these people behind the scenes, controlling companies and getting away with murder while their faces are never shown,” she told the Guardian.
Mississippi lawyer Mike Moore, who helped secure the Big Tobacco settlement and the $20bn settlement against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is involved in the federal case in Ohio and state cases. He said it was right the Sacklers should be targeted.
“They’ve been hiding behind a corporate structure and it’s high time they paid a price,” he said.