Last year, opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges of defrauding the US and violating the anti-kickback statute. The company, owned by the billionaire Sackler family, is accused of fuelling the US opioid crisis that has seen more than 500,000 people in America die from opioid-related overdoses since 1999. Allegations include that the company continued to aggressively market opioid-based drugs even after being fined for misbranding its OxyContin painkiller as safer and less addictive than other pills.

Then, this July, Purdue reached a massive settlement in efforts to resolve thousands of lawsuits over the catastrophic damage caused by OxyContin and its other opioid medicines. The company vowed to stop manufacturing opioid drugs, and the pledge, set to be paid over nine or ten years, is to go towards opioid prevention, treatment and recovery programmes in communities across the US. The settlement totals over $10bn, the company said, with around $4.5bn to be contributed by the Sackler family itself.

After almost two years of painstaking negotiations to reach the settlement, in court proceedings that started on 12 August, the Sackler family has said it will not pay its contribution unless the family and other individuals connected to the company are granted immunity from all current and future civil claims.

Bankruptcy and bargaining dominates Purdue opioid settlement

In 2019, in an attempt to deal with numerous lawsuits from cities, counties and other plaintiffs across the US, Purdue filed for bankruptcy protection. If successful, the bankruptcy plan – upon which the family’s $4.5bn pledge depends – would see Purdue dissolved and its assets placed into trusts directing profits to plaintiffs. The Sackler family will have no further involvement in the company.

The request for immunity came from former Purdue board member David Sackler, in the final phase of the confirmation hearing for the bankruptcy plan.

Sackler said he expected the immunity deal to cover himself, family members and around 1,000 other individuals related to Purdue, and shield them from lawsuits related both to opioids and all other drugs made by the company.

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The Sackler family themselves have not filed for bankruptcy.

Division over Purdue’s opioid settlement plan

While a range of states, hospitals and individuals are backing the deal, which would provide billions of dollars to communities hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, a significant number of plaintiffs and other critics remain opposed to giving the group legal protection.

Ahead of the hearing this month, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal, and US Representatives Carolyn B Maloney and Mark DeSaulnier, urged the Department of Justice to immediately appeal Purdue’s bankruptcy plan, saying it would release the Sackler family from “individual accountability for the opioid crisis they helped create”.

Lawyers for the states of Washington and Oregon also said in an objection to the plan: “Purdue aggressively marketed what was essentially an uncontrolled experiment on the American public.

“While the billions of dollars dealt with under the plan create the appearance of being massive and substantial, they are woefully insufficient in the context of the opioid epidemic.”

Despite strong opposition from nine states, Purdue’s plan may well go ahead unchallenged. New York and Massachusetts, states once staunchly opposed to the move, recently gave it their backing – and Purdue itself seems confident the deal will be successful.

The company said in an email to Al Jazeera: “This plan is what the private and governmental plaintiffs asserting trillions of dollars of claims against Purdue and the Sacklers overwhelmingly want, voted for and support.”