OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and lawyers representing local governments both said Sunday that they're interested in continuing negotiations to settle lawsuits over the toll of the opioid crisis a day after two state attorneys general told colleagues that their talks with the company were at an impasse and that they expected the company to file imminently for bankruptcy.
The statements add another layer of uncertainty to attempts to strike a deal with a company that's portrayed as a prime villain in the national opioid crisis.
In a statement, the company said, "negotiations continue and we remain dedicated to a resolution that genuinely advances the public interest."
The company said it is prepared to defend itself in litigation, but that "Purdue Pharma believes a settlement that benefits the American public now is a far better path than years of wasteful litigation and appeals."
A company spokeswoman declined to answer further questions about whether and with whom any negotiations are now taking place.
Earlier in the day, Paul Hanly, a lead lawyer for the group of local governments, unions, hospitals and others suing the drug industry in federal court, said in a statement that any breakdown in talks didn't represent his group of clients.
Those plaintiffs, he said, "will continue to explore resolution of our clients' claims against Purdue and the Sacklers, whether with or without the states and within or without bankruptcy court."
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A bankruptcy filing, if it happens, could change the landscape instantly for a complicated series of lawsuits.
"It seems that there will be little money for plaintiffs, if Purdue takes bankruptcy and the Sacklers are not kicking in any money for settlement," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Nearly every state and about 2,000 local governments have sued companies in the drug industry over the toll of opioids, which have been linked to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. over the last two decades. The suits cast Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue as a particular villain, saying the company's marketing of its drugs downplayed addiction risks and led to more widespread opioid prescribing, even though only a sliver of the opioid painkillers sold in the U.S. were its products.
On Saturday, two state attorneys general leading settlement negotiations with the company — Tennessee Republican Herbert Slatery and North Carolina Democrat Josh Stein — sent an email to their colleagues saying talks were at an impasse and that they "expect Purdue to file for bankruptcy protection imminently."
A representative for the family declined to comment on the email, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Purdue has said for months that it wants to reach a deal that would settle all state and local government claims against it, but it also has threatened to file for bankruptcy protection. Bankruptcy would mark a major shift in the multidistrict litigation being overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland. It would likely take Purdue out of the first federal trial over the opioid crisis, scheduled to start Oct. 21.
If the company opts for bankruptcy, a judge would have a lot of say over how to divide Purdue's assets.
The value of the private company, already relatively low, could continue dropping, leaving little to split among thousands of plaintiffs. The company also could go out of business. That's a big change from settlement proposals that would have kept the company operating in some form. Under one proposal, governments could have seen $10 billion to $12 billion over time, including at least $3 billion from the Sacklers as part of a deal that would have Purdue into a "structured bankruptcy."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has been part of the negotiations, said the attorneys general did not believe the deal would have been worth that much.
According to the email sent Saturday, the company rejected proposals from the states that could have been worth less money but came with greater assurances that the Sacklers would deliver $4.5 billion.
If the company files for bankruptcy, the Sacklers could still be exposed to lawsuits. At least 17 states have sued one or more family member, and Shapiro said he intends to join them.
But that could be a legally tenuous option for two reasons.
"One big problem is it may be very difficult for states to convince judges to rule that family members are personally liable," Tobias said. "And even if that happens, plaintiffs may have problems levying on the Sacklers' assets, if they are offshore."
Forbes magazine estimated in 2016 that the Sacklers had assets of more than $13 billion. New York's attorney general has issued subpoenas for financial records of Sackler-connected entities in an effort to find how the family moved money overseas. The Associated Press found last month that a system of trusts and companies makes it difficult to trace the family's money.
"This will be a challenging road forward," Shapiro said in an interview.