Federal Judge Overturns Sackler/Purdue Pharma Bid for Bankruptcy Protection

New York court house

The U.S. criminal justice system is a complicated institution, with legal settlements not always being over and done with when they seem to be. Case in point, a United States federal judge made national headlines when she overturned what had appeared to be a set-in-stone settlement between the Sackler family (owners of Purdue Pharmaceuticals) and thousands of plaintiffs.

The big question now is this: Will multi-billion dollar pharma corporations and the families that own them finally be held accountable for their role in creating the opioid epidemic? Will justice finally be served?

New Developments in the Purdue Pharma/Sackler Case

On December 16th, 2021, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon overturned the roughly $4.5 billion settlement that shielded members of the Sackler family and about 1,000 of their employees from all future litigation. That shield was supposed to protect the Sacklers and their employees from lawsuits regarding the opioid epidemic and the role of OxyContin in the epidemic. Unfortunately, not only does this major reversal decision open the door to future civil and criminal action against the Sacklers, but it also threatens to upend the bankruptcy recognition given to the Sackler’s company, Purdue Pharmaceuticals.


Judge McMahon made her decision because the bankruptcy court that negotiated the settlement between the Sacklers and the plaintiffs did not have the authority to grant the Sackler family and their approximately 1,000 employees total immunity from all future lawsuits.

While the ruling by Judge McMahon is a win for those who want to see the Sacklers and Purdue Pharmaceuticals brought to justice for the thousands of Americans who died as a result of taking OxyContin, the ruling does put the $4.5 billion settlement at risk. The Sackler family has threatened all along to walk away from the settlement deal if they could not win immunity from future litigation. If the Sacklers prevail in their legal argument, the plaintiffs may not receive any settlement funds at all.

“There cannot be two forms of justice – one for ordinary Americans and a different one for billionaires. I’m prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to ensure true accountability for the Sackler family.”

On the other hand, McMahon’s ruling has received widespread support from state attorneys general and even Attorney General Merrick Garland himself. From Garland, “The bankruptcy court did not have the authority to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family.” And from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, “There cannot be two forms of justice – one for ordinary Americans and a different one for billionaires. I’m prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to ensure true accountability for the Sackler family.”

While many plaintiffs had initially agreed to the Sackler/Purdue settlement, thousands did not. For instance, eight states, Washington D.C., Seattle, the U.S. Justice Department Bankruptcy Court Watchdog, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, and over 2,600 personal injury claimants all voted against Purdue Pharmaceuticals reorganizing into a new company and the Sackler family and their employees winning immunity.

Beyond the plaintiffs, Judge McMahon’s ruling resonated with thousands upon thousands of Americans who continue to bring legal fights against the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, individuals who believe that one of America’s wealthiest multi-billion dollar families should not be able to win lifetime immunity from any retribution for the thousands of lives lost to OxyContin overdoses.

The recent ruling has garnered widespread cultural approval too. In the same week that McMahon made her ruling, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced its decision to remove the Sackler name from several exhibits. On a cultural and societal level, the Sackler family has more than fallen out of favor with the American people.

Judge McMahon’s ruling also unravels the previous decision by White Plains, New York Judge Robert Drain, the judge who had previously authorized the $4.5 billion settlement. And while Judge McMahon and Judge Drain do not see eye to eye on granting the Sacklers immunity from future litigation (the main reason why McMahon overturned Drain’s ruling), even Judge Drain had agreed that it was more than clear that the wrongful and deceptive marketing of Purdue’s OxyContin contributed to the addiction crisis that touched every state in the nation.

It’s important to hold pharma companies and their billionaire owners accountable when the drugs that the companies make lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. And while the recent decision by Judge McMahon may put the $4.5 billion at risk, many would say it is worth it if it means truly holding Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family accountable.

A National Public Health Emergency; America’s Opioid Epidemic

In an alarming report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 100,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2020. Unfortunately, that number is only expected to go up as synthetic opioids like fentanyl make their way further into the drug supply, now contaminating batches of cocaine and methamphetamine.

But it’s not just 2020 that saw alarmingly high rates of fatal drug overdoses. Nearly every year since the turn of the century saw increases in drug deaths, each year announcing a higher death rate than the year before. Not coincidentally, this crisis began when pharmaceutical corporations began heavily marketing, promoting, and pushing their opioid pain relievers onto doctors and the American public.

Also according to the CDC, about 841,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses since 1999. Over 70% of those deaths involved an opioid. While all mind-altering drugs pose certain dangers and risks to those who take them, opioids take the lead by far in overdose risk, hence the majority of deaths being caused by opioids alone or by opioids mixed with other drugs.

While synthetic opioids like fentanyl are causing the lion’s share of opioid-related deaths, prescription opioids are still a major threat to American lives. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, at least 40% of opioid-related overdoses involve a prescription opioid. As long as prescription opioids kill Americans, alternatives to pain relief must be explored. And pharma corporations and their owners must be held accountable for their lethal products.

The Importance of Addiction Treatment for Those Hooked on Opioids

It’s of the utmost importance that states, counties, cities, and individuals hold pharma giants fully accountable for their crimes. This has to happen so that nothing like the opioid epidemic ever occurs again. Because if the pharma giants and the families that control them get away without accepting accountability for the opioid epidemic, what’s to prevent them from creating a similar epidemic later on down the line?

But sadly, holding pharma corporations and their owners accountable does little for those who are currently addicted to opioid painkillers. That’s why individuals, families, and communities must also focus on treating those currently addicted to opioids. Those addicted and their loved ones must seek out qualified residential treatment centers to help them overcome opioid addiction before it is too late.

If you know someone who is addicted to opioids, please ensure that they get help at a drug and alcohol rehab center as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli; ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.