March 26 (Reuters) - Purdue Pharma LP has agreed to settle a lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma accusing the maker of painkiller OxyContin of helping fuel an opioid abuse epidemic, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The settlement is the first stemming from a wave of recent lawsuits over the drugmaker’s marketing of painkillers.
The settlement with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter came just weeks before Purdue, owned by members of the wealthy Sackler family, faced the first trial stemming from about 2,000 lawsuits nationally against opioid manufacturers. The trial was to be televised.
Hunter’s 2017 lawsuit accused Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd of deceptive marketing that downplayed the risks of addiction associated with opioid pain drugs while overstating their benefits.
The companies deny wrongdoing and have sought to delay the May 28 trial to Sept. 16, citing the need to review records the state turned over that could be critical to their defense. The state has been seeking over $20 billion in damages.
Hunter scheduled a press conference for Tuesday to announce a “breaking development” in the lawsuit. A spokesman for Hunter declined to comment. A lawyer for Purdue did not respond to a request for comment.
A trial judge earlier this month rejected the companies’ efforts to delay the trial. On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected their appeal of that decision.
Of roughly 2,000 lawsuits nationally, more than 1,600 are in federal court and the rest are in state courts. The 1,600 lawsuits were consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has pushed for a settlement ahead of a trial in October.
Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue has been exploring filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to address potential liabilities stemming from the lawsuits, people familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
Purdue’s settlement with Oklahoma relieves the immediate pressure on the drugmaker for a bankruptcy filing, said Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. She said the company likely was also in talks with others to settle.
“This may be the start of the dominos falling for Purdue,” Lahav said.
Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The epidemic has prompted lawsuits by state and local governments accusing various drugmakers of contributing to the crisis, including Purdue, which introduced the painkiller OxyContin in 1996.
Purdue has held discussions to resolve the litigation with plaintiffs’ lawyers, who have often compared the cases to widespread lawsuits against the tobacco industry that resulted in a $246 billion settlement in 1998.
Paul Hanly, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the federal opioid litigation, said they are “hopeful that the Oklahoma settlement is the beginning of a good-faith program on the part of Purdue to settle all of the nationwide litigation.” (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Additional reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Jeffrey Benkoe)