Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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In Our View: Ferguson right to challenge opioid deal

The Columbian

The state health department estimates that nearly 10,000 Washington residents have died as the result of a decades-long opioid crisis. While no amount of money can make up for lost and ruined lives, accountability must be delivered in the name of justice.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is right to challenge an agreement by Purdue Pharma that would settle lawsuits and protect the company’s owners from fully answering for their actions. Under a plan being considered by a bankruptcy court in New York, the company would dissolve, with its assets rolled into trusts run on behalf of plaintiffs. The Sackler family would pay $4.5 billion to victims over nine years, and the company would make millions of documents public.

Most important, the Sacklers would admit to no wrongdoing and would have permanent immunity from any future civil liability related to the opioid crisis.

Nearly all plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma have agreed to those conditions, and the plan is likely to be approved by the court. But Ferguson and attorneys general from seven other states are challenging the proposal.

“This settlement plan allows the Sacklers to walk away as billionaires with a legal shield for life,” Ferguson said. “It’s up to the states – not a bankruptcy court – to decide whether states should hold the Sacklers accountable in a court of law. . . . The Sacklers should not be allowed to profit from their misconduct.”

But profit they have. While downplaying the addictive properties of OxyContin and pushing medical professionals to prescribe the painkiller, they reaped billions of dollars while contributing to a crisis of addiction. OxyContin has generated an estimated $35 billion in revenue for the company; the Sackler’s family fortune is estimated at $11 billion.

As Patrick Redden Keefe wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times: “Conservatively, with interest and investments, this means they can expect a 5 percent annualized rate of return on that fortune. If that’s the case, they’ll be able to pay the fine without even touching their principal. When they’re done paying in 2030, they will probably be richer than they are today.” Keefe is the author of a book about Purdue and the Sackler family.

Major corporations and the super wealthy long have manipulated the American justice system to avoid accountability. It is a failure of jurisprudence that must be challenged by elected officials who represent the public.

The Purdue Pharma case is the most visible of several involving corporations and the opioid crisis. Ferguson recently rejected a $26 billion settlement with pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson and opioid distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. That agreement would call for Washington to receive $527.5 million over 18 years, including $109.6 million from Johnson & Johnson; the deal would be inadequate considering that over the past five years the companies funneled $100 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends. Going to trial could result in a larger verdict; Johnson & Johnson recently lost a $465 million ruling in Oklahoma.

No amount of money can make up for the extraordinary cost in lives, treatment, health care and law enforcement. A statement from Ferguson’s office said, “Based on expert reports, it will cost Washington state alone tens of billions of dollars to fix the opioid crisis.”

If the Sacklers avoid full accountability for those expenses, there will be little to prevent the next crisis perpetrated by drug manufacturers.