Uncertainty over how state’s settlement with Purdue Pharma will impact other lawsuits

Some attorneys have raised concerns that Oklahoma's settlement with Purdue, reached last week, could interfere with their lawsuits, which are independent from the state’s. Others are unsure whether they will elect to participate.

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Oklahoma reached a $270 million settlement agreement with Purdue Pharma LP in late March. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Purdue Pharma made its first payment on Wednesday as part of its multi-million dollar settlement agreement with Oklahoma, but court battles are far from over for the company as more than 20 cities and counties in the state are still in the midst of their own litigation.

However, a handful of attorneys representing those municipalities have raised concerns that the state’s settlement with Purdue, reached last week, might interfere with their lawsuits, which are independent from the state’s.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing other counties told The Frontier they are unsure whether they will participate in the settlement or continue to pursue financial damages against Purdue drug companies on their own.

Attorney General Mike Hunter announced last week the state reached a $270 million settlement agreement with Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, and the family that owns the company, the Sacklers.

The agreement dismissed Purdue from the state’s lawsuit, which accuses drug companies of knowingly fueling the state’s opioid crisis with an aggressive marketing campaign that made false and dangerous claims about the dangers of the drugs.

The case is pending against more than a dozen other defendants and is set to go to trial next month in Cleveland County District Court.

The settlement reserved $12.5 million to go to cities and counties.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announces the details of the state’s settlement agreement with Purdue Pharma at a news conference in Tulsa on March 26, 2019. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

Purdue made its first payment in the settlement on Wednesday, doling out $102.5 million that is set to go to establish a foundation that will pour money into the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Center for Wellness & Recovery. The center will aim to treat and research addiction on a nationwide level.

In a motion to intervene filed on Tuesday attorneys for the cities of Lawton, Enid, Broken Arrow, Midwest City and Oklahoma City asked for the judge to clarify the settlement agreement’s language.

Attorneys said they are concerned the agreement could be interpreted in a way that interferes with their claims against Purdue companies, which they believe was not the intent of the settlement agreement, they said in the motion.

The agreement between the state and Purdue stated the settlement would release Purdue of claims from “any political subdivisions on whose behalf the Attorney General possessed the authority, to bind, against the Releasees (Purdue) regardless of whether any releasor ever seeks or obtains any distribution under the Agreement.”

Attorneys said the agreement’s language is too vague and entities bound to the agreement “could convincibally (sic) be wrongfully misinterpreted by a different court to include any political subdivision of the State … regardless if they participate in the $12.5 million established by the Consent Judgment for cities and counties.”

“It could be incorrectly construed to release every city and county of the State to the Consent Judgement, even where cities and counties … never participated in the litigation or settlement negotiations with Purdue,” attorneys wrote in the motion.

Attorney general’s office spokesman Alex Gerszewski said the agency is working to establish a process on how to distribute the funds to cities and counties, but municipalities will be allowed to choose whether to participate.

Gerszewski said the office is aware of concerns from attorneys representing Oklahoma counties and cities in lawsuits against Purdue.

“Our office is committed to working with them to clarify any concerns they might have,” he said.

George Gibbs is an attorney representing the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners in its opioid lawsuit, which includes Purdue drug companies. He said he is unsure whether the county will participate in the state’s settlement.

“We sued a lot of other defendants that the state didn’t sue, so we feel very confident in our case that we will recover additional monies,” Gibbs said. “But I’m gonna be honest with you that what the state got, it is rumored $270 million is just a drop in the bucket compared to what money is in Purdue.”

Along with the Purdue companies, the county named dozens of other defendants in its lawsuit, including Walmart, doctors and opioid companies.

Gibbs said he is set to meet with the attorney general’s office Friday.

“We don’t know what the amount of money is, we don’t know what mechanism the attorney general’s office is going to use to disperse the funds, and we don’t know whether the county will take the money or not,” he said.

There are more than 1,500 lawsuits pending against Purdue drug companies across the U.S.

Related reading: 

Oklahoma reaches $270 million settlement with Purdue and Sacklers in opioid lawsuit

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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