Federal judge pauses opioid lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, Sackler family

A federal judge paused more than 2,600 lawsuits against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma on Friday so parties can address their differences to allow continuing litigation over the company's role in exacerbating the nation's opioid crisis.

The drugmaker and its owners, the Sackler family, filed for bankruptcy last month as part of a tentative settlement. Half the states and hundreds of local governments suing Purdue have refused to sign on, leading to uncertainty as to whether a deal will come to fruition.

In a Friday hearing in White Plains, N.Y., U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain issued an injunction until Nov. 6 for both sides to hash out their differences so litigation can go on. He initially favored stopping the suits for six months before settling for a few weeks.

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In this Sept. 12 photo, cars pass Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. How much members of the Sackler family should be held accountable for the role their company, Purdue Pharma, played in the nation’s opioid crisis will be at the center of a hearing in federal bankruptcy court. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

In this Sept. 12 photo, cars pass Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. How much members of the Sackler family should be held accountable for the role their company, Purdue Pharma, played in the nation’s opioid crisis will be at the center of a hearing in federal bankruptcy court. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

"A trial here will simply be an autopsy," Drain said. He cited mounting litigation costs that could otherwise go to families affected by the opioid crisis for halting the legal action, according to The New York Times.

He pushed the parties to address concerns from opposing states.

“We are disappointed by the court’s ruling, but pleased that it is limited in time to less than 30 days,” said William Tong, the attorney general of Connecticut. “We will use this time to ensure that we get access to the Sacklers’ financial information and will be ready on Nov. 6 to make our case to hold Purdue and the Sacklers accountable.”

Under the terms of the tentative settlement, the Sacklers would pay $3 billion to plaintiffs over seven years and would have to sell Mundipharma, their British pharmaceutical company and give up ownership of Purdue. Nearly two dozens state and hundreds of local municipalities have signed on.

Another two dozen other states and other cities, counties and tribes have balked at the deal, saying the scale of the opioid crisis far exceeds anything being offered. Purdue has long been blamed for the opioid epidemic thanks to its aggressive drug marketing model and misleading federal regulators about OxyContin's risk of addiction, The Times said.

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At issue is how much the Sacklers should contribute for Purdue's role in the epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. The company has downplayed its part. Purdue has said it manufactured 4 percent of prescription drugs sold in the United States between 2013 and 2016 and that all were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but also monitored by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Just before Friday's hearing, a committee of unsecured creditors that includes opioid crisis victims said it would support pausing the lawsuits. A deal with unsecured creditors calls for the Sacklers to provide financial information.

"We hope to be getting things that will help us decide whether we support the settlement," the committee's lawyer, Arik Preis, said in court Friday.

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Drain urged parties accusing the Sacklers of fraudulently transferring money from Purdue to resolve those lawsuits through negotiations in bankruptcy court because it could provide financial information from the family quicker than through separate litigation.

In a statement, Purdue said it saw Friday's ruling as an "essential next step in preserving Purdue's assets for the ultimate benefit of the American public. The company will work tirelessly and collaboratively during this pause in the litigation to continue to build support for the settlement structure."

This Aug. 29, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of prescription oxycodone pills in New York. U.S. health officials are again warning doctors against abandoning chronic pain patients by abruptly stopping their opioid prescriptions.  (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

This Aug. 29, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of prescription oxycodone pills in New York. U.S. health officials are again warning doctors against abandoning chronic pain patients by abruptly stopping their opioid prescriptions.  (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

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A court filing made public in Massachusetts this year asserts that members of the Sackler family were paid more than $4 billion by Purdue from 2007 to 2018. Much of the family's fortune is believed to be held outside the U.S., which could complicate lawsuits against the family over opioids.

In March, Purdue and members of the Sackler family reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma to avoid a trial on the toll of opioids there.

Fox News' Morgan Phillips Frank Miles and The Associated Press contributed to this report.