Opioid crisis victims confront Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family

In a rare hearing, two dozen people whose lives and families have been wracked by opioid abuse give statements in US Bankruptcy Court.

Pill Mann" made by Frank Huntley of Worcester, Mass., from his opioid prescription pill bottles, is displayed during a protest by advocates for opioid victims outside the Department of Justice.
'Pill Man' - made by Frank Huntley of Worcester, Massachusetts, from his opioid prescription pill bottles - is displayed during a 2021 protest by advocates for opioid victims outside the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, the United States [File: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Releasing years of anguish and anger, victims of opioid abuse and those who have lost loved ones to an addiction crisis stretching back more than two decades unloaded their emotions on members of the family they blame for fuelling the deadly epidemic.

Thursday’s unusual hearing, conducted virtually in United States Bankruptcy Court, gave them what they have wanted for years: the chance to confront members of the billionaire Sackler family who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and tell them about the lasting pain that addiction and overdoses have caused in their lives.

“When you created OxyContin, you created so much loss for so many people. … I’m outraged that you haven’t owned up to the crisis that you’ve created,” said Kay Scarpone, addressing the three Sackler family members in attendance. She lost her son Joseph Scarpone, a former US Marine, to addiction a month before his 26th birthday.

A surge in opioid prescriptions began in the 1990s with a change in standards of medical care that focused on pain management. Between 1999 and 2019, more than 500,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Appearing only via audio was Richard Sackler, the former Purdue Pharma president and board chair who has said the company and family bear no responsibility for the opioid crisis, and a son of Raymond Sackler, one of the three brothers who in the 1950s bought the company that became Purdue Pharma. Attending on video were Theresa Sackler, wife of the late Mortimer D Sackler, another of the brothers; and David Sackler, Richard Sackler’s son.

Theresa’s and David’s neutral expressions did not change as Scarpone spoke.

 Fake pill bottles with messages about OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are displayed during a protest outside the courthouse where the bankruptcy of the company is taking place in White Plains, New York.
Fake pill bottles with messages about OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are displayed during a protest outside the courthouse where the bankruptcy case of the company is taking place in White Plains, New York [File: Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

She was among about two dozen people whose lives and families have been wracked by opioid abuse who are giving statements in US Bankruptcy Court. They are telling about the pain of losing children after years of trying to get them adequate treatment, about their own journeys through addiction and about caring for babies born into withdrawal and screaming in pain.

The forum is an unconventional hearing for the White Plains, New York courtroom of Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, who on Wednesday gave tentative approval to key elements of a plan to settle thousands of lawsuits against the company.

“The nature of today’s proceedings are unique and important,” Drain said to open the hearing. “The past and ongoing impact of OxyContin on individual people has always been of critical importance in this case.”

The hearing is to last two hours. Drain said members of the Sackler family and others will not be given a chance to respond to the statements from the group of victims selected to speak by lawyers for creditors in the case. Some of the victims are addressing the Sacklers from a law office in New York; others will be at their homes in communities across the US.

The hearing may be the closest thing to a trial for Sackler family members, who victims say helped spark and prolong the epidemic through the marketing of their signature painkiller OxyContin.

Purdue Pharma's headquarters stands in Stamford, Connecticut.
Purdue Pharma is expected to ask a federal judge to approve a nationwide settlement that will transform the company into a public trust and contribute up to $6bn from members of the Sackler family to ending the US’s ongoing overdose and addiction crisis [File: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo]

“While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities,” the Sackler family said in a statement last week.

The settlement agreement is estimated to be worth at least $10bn over time. It calls for members of the Sackler family to contribute $5.5bn to $6bn over 17 years to fight the opioid crisis. That’s an increase of more than $1bn over a previous version that was rejected by another judge on appeal. Most of the money would be used for efforts to combat the crisis, but $750m would go directly to victims or their survivors.

The overall settlement, which still requires actions by multiple courts to take effect, provides more than $150m for Native American tribes and over $100m for medical monitoring and payments for children born in withdrawal from opioids.

As the settlement was hashed out with a mediator, the terms went beyond money. The plan also calls for family members to give up ownership of the company so it could become a new entity with its profits dedicated to stemming the epidemic. In exchange, Sackler family members would get protection from civil lawsuits over opioids.

The family also agreed not to oppose any efforts to remove the Sackler name from cultural and educational institutions they have supported and to make public a larger cache of company documents.

Purdue Pharma has twice pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but no members of the Sackler family have been charged with crimes. There are no indications that any such charges are forthcoming, although seven US senators last month asked the Department of Justice to consider charges.

Other drugmakers, distributors, marketers and pharmacies involved in the opioid industry have faced similar lawsuits from state and local governments, Native American tribes and other entities.

Last month, drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and wholesalers AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced they were finalising settlements worth a combined $26bn. As in the proposed Purdue Pharma settlement, most of that money is required to be used to fight the crisis.

Source: News Agencies