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Drug Firms Accused Of Fueling Opioid Crisis In Talks To Reach Legal Settlements


Some of the nation's biggest drugmakers are in closed-door talks today and tomorrow in Ohio. They are trying to reach settlements with state and local governments - settlements that would cap their liability for the nation's opioid epidemic. These settlements could run into the tens of billions of dollars. Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson are at the table, as are smaller firms. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann follows opioid litigation for NPR. He joins me now.

Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's talk first about Purdue Pharma, which, of course, makes OxyContin. What are you hearing about what kind of deal might be on the table?

MANN: Right. So Purdue Pharma has confirmed that these talks are under way, and a government source close to the negotiations has told NPR that they've been taking place today, including state attorneys general and also the federal judge overseeing all this, Judge Dan Polster. There have been numerous published reports now that the dollar amounts here for Purdue could run as high as $12 billion, with some of that coming from the Sackler family. And it could also mean the Sackler family giving up ownership of this privately held company through some kind of bankruptcy proceeding.

KELLY: I want to ask you about a recording and how it fits in. This is a tape released this week by ProPublica and STAT news. It's tape of Richard Sackler, who is one of Purdue Pharma's owners, speaking during a deposition in a trial in Kentucky. What's the relevance of this tape, Brian? What does he say?

MANN: Yeah. This was recorded just before Purdue Pharma settled an earlier opioid lawsuit in Kentucky in 2015. This was at a time when tens of thousands of Americans had already died from prescription opioid overdoses. But Richard Sackler, who we now know from company documents - we now know he played a major role, pushing hard to boost sales of OxyContin - he still denied any wrongdoing. Here he is being questioned by an attorney.


UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Do you believe Purdue's marketing was overly aggressive?


UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Do you believe Purdue's marketing was appropriate?

SACKLER: I believe so.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: After all you've come to learn as a witness, do you believe Purdue's conduct in marketing and promoting OxyContin in Kentucky caused any of the prescription drug addiction problems?

SACKLER: I don't believe so.

MANN: Now, this is interesting in part, Mary Louise, because in past settlement deals, Purdue has often refused to admit any fault and also demanded that all the court papers detailing any wrongdoing be kept secret or destroyed. So one thing people are going to be watching closely here now is whether any settlement deals include clear admission by Purdue and the Sacklers that they contributed to tens of thousands of opioid deaths as the plaintiffs claim and also what information is made public about their actions.

KELLY: All right. OK. Let me turn you to Johnson & Johnson, which, of course, has already been in the headlines this week. They lost the civil trial that was unfolding in a state court in Oklahoma. A judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $570 million to help deal with that state's opioid epidemic. What do we know about Johnson & Johnson and how interested they might be in joining a national settlement?

MANN: Right. So Johnson & Johnson says they will appeal that Oklahoma ruling. But a government source tells NPR the company has approached Judge Polster out there in Ohio, interested in some kind of deal that would resolve all opioid-related claims. Those talks are expected to resume tomorrow. Johnson & Johnson won't confirm all this, but they did send a statement to NPR saying they remain open to viable options to resolve these cases, including through a settlement. Two other smaller companies, Allergan and Endo, have also been in talks. They appear to have reached tentative settlements. And I'd say here, Mary Louise, all these companies are facing huge potential liability, a lot of uncertainty tied to this wave of lawsuits. And their hope here clearly is that deals like this would end that uncertainty.

KELLY: Right. In the brief seconds we have left, Brian, with all of this seeming to move very quickly all of a sudden, is it clear where all of this money, all this settlement money, would go?

MANN: Yeah. No. And that's getting messy politically. There are big fights underway around the U.S. in Ohio, Oklahoma and other states about who will control this money. It's also a big question how much of the money will go to people and communities struggling with addiction. So we're going to have a lot of those questions in the weeks ahead.

KELLY: That was Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio speaking to us via Skype.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.