A lawsuit filed by more than 500 cities, counties, and Native American tribes accuses the Sackler family, owners of the company that makes the opioid painkiller OxyContin, of playing a role in creating “the worst drug crisis in American history.”

While other lawsuits have targeted Purdue Pharma, which is wholly owned by the Sacklers, and eight family members have been recently added to some of those lawsuits, this is the first time Sackler family members have been sued as individuals on such a massive scale.

The lawsuit, filed on March 18 in federal court in the Southern District of New York, accuses family members of knowingly breaking the law in their bid to get rich off sales of OxyContin, which helped generate the current opioid crisis with its release and intensive marketing in the late 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of opioid overdoses since the rollout of OxyContin in 1996.

“Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic,” the lawsuit charges. “This nation is facing an unprecedented opioid addiction epidemic that was initiated and perpetuated by the Sackler defendants for their own financial gain, to the detriment of each of the plaintiffs and their residents.

“The ‘Sackler defendants’ include Richard Sackler, Beverly Sackler, David Sackler, Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, Jonathan Sackler, Kathe Sackler, Mortimer D.A. Sackler, and Theresa Sackler,” the lawsuit states.

Richard and Jonathan Sackler are sons of the late Raymond Sackler, one of Purdue Pharma’s founding brothers. Beverly is Raymond’s widow and David his grandson. Ilene, Kathe, and Mortimer David Alfons are children of the late Mortimer Sackler, another of the founding brothers of Purdue, and Theresa is his widow.

Court documents filed in relation to the lawsuit accuse the eight of purposefully downplaying the dangers of OxyContin, which is multiple times more potent than either heroin or morphine. Purdue Pharma marketed the drug as non-addictive and abuse-proof, but neither claim was true. The company and the Sacklers are also accused of over-the-top marketing and sales techniques that led to over-prescribing and the prescribing of ever-stronger doses for many patients who didn’t need them.

“The defendants’ actions caused and continue to cause the public health epidemic,” the court documents charge. Their activity “caused deaths, serious injuries, and a severe disruption to public peace, order and safety, it is ongoing and it is producing permanent and long-lasting damage.”

The charges aren’t new—many of them are contained in a similar lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler eight filed earlier in Massachusetts, as well as in court documents from yet another case against pharmaceutical companies including Purdue filed in federal court in Cleveland. That lawsuit, filed by more than 1,200 cities and counties, does not name Sackler family members individually.

The Sackler eight are the public face of a family that has sought to cement its place in high society through massive philanthropy (it helps to have billions in opioid sales profits). The Sacklers have given heavily to nationally known arts institutions, such as the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums in New York City, a move that has sparked recent protests against taking the tainted money. Earlier this month, in the face of mounting criticism, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery announced it was foregoing a million-pound gift from the Sacklers.

The Sacklers have also donated to educational institutions, such as Columbia, MIT, Tufts, Yale, and other universities in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Columbia University and the University of Washington, which also took Sackler money, have both announced they will accept no more gifts from the family.

The Sacklers and Purdue Pharma reject any claims of wrongdoing.

“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,’’ a Purdue spokesman said in an emailed statement to the Bloomberg news agency.

“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 a statement, adding that OxyContin sales “represented a tiny portion of the opioid market.”

Facing numerous lawsuits over the way it has done business, as well as having admitted to misbranding OxyContin in a 2007 criminal case, Purdue Pharma has considered filing for bankruptcy, but has also suggested it does not have the kind of cash reserves to pay out a massive settlement or fines in the cases against it. But if the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are victorious, it wouldn’t just be Purdue Pharma funds but Sackler family fortunes at risk.

This article was produced by ​Drug Reporter​, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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