A painstakingly negotiated billions comparison around the opioid epidemic in the USA is suddenly in question again: A New York judge has now repealed the agreement concluded in September, with which several thousand lawsuits against the drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma should be settled.

Purdue's pain reliever, Oxycontin, is considered by many to be the root of the opioid crisis.

Roland Lindner

Business correspondent in New York.

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The settlement should end the company's two-year insolvency proceedings. He planned that Purdue would disappear in its previous form and be converted into a kind of foundation. The owner family Sackler also agreed to pay 4.5 billion dollars within ten years, which should flow into programs for addiction treatment and prevention, among other things.

For the time being, the settlement has now been overturned because of a controversial immunity clause that was linked to this billion-dollar promise and that was intended to offer the family extensive protection against further opioid lawsuits. This was controversial because, unlike Purdue, the Sacklers themselves had not filed for bankruptcy. Critics said the comparison left the family far too light. During the bankruptcy proceedings, experts had their say who said the Sacklers could get even richer than they are today if they invest cleverly, despite the billions in payments. The family's net worth was last put at $ 10.7 billion.

New York judge Colleen McMahon has now said the bankruptcy judge did not have the authority to grant the Sacklers this immunity.

Such a protective shield is not provided for in bankruptcy law.

McMahon had already been critical of the fact that the Sacklers had withdrawn billions from the company, and she had raised the question of whether the bankruptcy system had been abused.

New records in the United States

The Sacklers insisted on immunity during the bankruptcy proceedings and threatened not to settle without this clause. Purdue has now also immediately appealed the judge's decision, saying that billions in aid to contain the opioid epidemic would again be in question. The last word on the matter may therefore not have been spoken.

Opponents of the settlement, including some states as well as the US Department of Justice, were pleased with the latest verdict. Attorney General Merrick Garland echoed the judge's argument, saying the bankruptcy court did not have the authority to "deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family." Connecticut State Attorney General William Tong spoke of a "seismic victory for justice," forcing the Sacklers to grapple with the damage they have caused.

At the center of the allegations against the Sacklers is Oxycontin. The drug was launched in 1996, and with it, the prescription culture for pain relievers in the United States changed. It is stronger than morphine, but has not only been prescribed to the critically ill, but has also been widely used to treat pain. Many people became addicted to it. Purdue has aggressively marketed Oxycontin and, according to critics, downplayed the risks involved. In 2007 the company reached a settlement and paid a fine.

Since then, the opioid crisis has worsened, and lawsuits against the company and in some cases against the Sacklers themselves have increased. Other companies have also been sued and settled.

According to the latest information from the health department, 100,000 people in the United States died from a drug overdose for the first time in the 12 month period ended April this year.

Three quarters of the cases were related to opioids.

In recent years, opioid consumption has shifted away from painkillers towards heroin and, most recently, increasingly towards the synthetic and particularly aggressive fentanyl.

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