DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's talk about the latest development in the push to hold drug companies accountable for the nation's opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma manufacturers the opioid medication OxyContin. That company is owned by one of the wealthiest families in America, the Sacklers. Purdue is facing a wave of lawsuits. But state attorneys general say they are at an impasse in negotiations. And the company is likely to file for bankruptcy. So what could that mean? Well, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann covers opioid litigation for NPR and joins me this morning. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Let's just talk about the substance, first, of these talks with Purdue Pharma and what they were meant to accomplish.
MANN: Yeah. This was really high-stakes stuff. Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family - they've signaled for months that they want some kind of national settlement that would cap their liability and get money paid out to these communities hit hard by the opioid epidemic. We've heard payouts could run as high as 10 to 12 billion dollars. But in this latest round of talks, state attorneys general demanded something specific. They wanted the Sacklers to commit to paying roughly $4.5 billion out of their personal fortunes as part of that compensation. They say the Sacklers balked at that. And here's Josh Stein. He's attorney general for the state of North Carolina.
JOSH STEIN: We needed more security on the part of the Sacklers that the money that they were pledging they would, in fact, pay. And we didn't have that commitment. And the Sacklers rejected those proposals. The deal was there to be made, and they refused. And so this is where we find ourselves.
GREENE: All right. So North Carolina's attorney general - they're saying the deal was there. They refused. Is there still hope for a deal? I mean, what happens now?
MANN: Right. So at this point, Stein and other members of his negotiating team - they predict Purdue Pharma will now file for bankruptcy protection imminently. In an email they sent Saturday that was obtained by NPR, they said states across the U.S. are already preparing for that bankruptcy to happen. And Purdue has signaled in the past that bankruptcy is one of the options they're considering. The company declined to answer our questions about this over the weekend or say whether bankruptcy is, in fact, imminent. But Purdue Pharma did send NPR a statement late last night saying they still hope to negotiate some kind of deal. In fact, they say talks with some government officials, possibly local government officials, are still continuing.
GREENE: But what about bankruptcy? And what implication could that have, I mean, for these lawsuits against the company, of course? But I'm just thinking about all the people who say they need money to recover from opioids.
MANN: Yeah, this is going to complicate all of that enormously. Remember, more than 2,000 state and local governments have sued. Total claims could run into the tens of billions of dollars. And a major federal trial involving Purdue Pharma and 20 other drug companies is scheduled for just next month in Ohio. So if this bankruptcy happens, it could throw all of that into chaos. It might take years to sort out what assets remain and then who's first in line to get some kind of compensation.
GREENE: But, I mean, Brian, this is also the story of a famous and controversial American family - right? - the Sacklers. I mean, opioid sales made them one of the richest families in the country. If Purdue Pharma does file for Chapter 11 protection, I mean, what could happen to their personal wealth?
MANN: Yeah. There's a legal argument being made by some of these states that the Sacklers effectively stripped billions of dollars out of Purdue Pharma over the years. In part, it's alleged because the family suspected their company would eventually face lawsuits like this. So 17 states are already suing the Sacklers directly to try to claw back some of those profits. And Josh Stein, the attorney general of North Carolina, said - says other states will follow.
STEIN: Many states, like mine, will be filing lawsuits against the Sacklers in their individual capacity in creating this epidemic. I think almost more than any other family and company, they have to wear that burden.
MANN: So the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma - they're going to face other legal troubles that won't end if there's a bankruptcy. The Wall Street Journal also reported Friday that the U.S. Justice Department is involved in separate talks with Purdue Pharma that could involve criminal, as well as civil complaints.
GREENE: Brian Mann from North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation for us at NPR. Thanks, Brian.
MANN: Thank you, David.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.