Lady Justice is definitely blind when it comes to the massive harm caused by very wealthy pharmaceutical companies.
Members of the Sackler family who are at the center of the nation’s deadly opioid crisis have won sweeping immunity from opioid lawsuits linked to their privately owned company Purdue Pharma and its OxyContin medication.
Federal Judge Robert Drain approved a bankruptcy settlement on Wednesday that grants the Sacklers “global peace” from any liability for the opioid epidemic.
“This is a bitter result,” Drain said. “I believe that at least some of the Sackler parties have liability for those [opioid OxyContin] claims. … I would have expected a higher settlement.”
The complex bankruptcy plan, confirmed by Drain at a hearing in White Plains, N.Y., was negotiated in a series of intense closed-door mediation sessions over the past two years.
The deal grants “releases” from liability for harm caused by OxyContin and other opioids to the Sacklers, hundreds of their associates, as well as their remaining empire of companies and trusts.
In return, they have agreed to pay roughly $4.3 billion, while also forfeiting ownership of Purdue Pharma.
In his bench ruling, Drain acknowledged the devastating harm caused by Purdue Pharma’s opioid products, which he said contributed to a “massive public health crisis.”
According to Drain, this settlement offers an opportunity to help communities with funding for drug treatment and other opioid abatement programs.
The Sacklers, who admit no wrongdoing and who by their own reckoning earned more than $10 billion from opioid sales, will remain one of the wealthiest families in the world.
Representatives of the Mortimer Sackler branch of the family sent a statement to NPR.
“While we dispute the allegations that have been made about our family, we have embraced this path in order to help combat a serious and complex public health crisis.”
In his ruling, Judge Drain noted that members of the Sackler family had declined to offer an explicit apology for their role leading Purdue Pharma.
“A forced apology is not really an apology,” Drain said. “So we will have to live without one.”
Critics of this bankruptcy settlement, meanwhile, said they would challenge Drain’s confirmation because of the liability releases for the Sacklers.
“This order is insulting to victims of the opioid epidemic who had no voice in these proceedings — and must be appealed,” said Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Twitter.
Activists are outraged
The settlement has incensed opioid activists and many legal scholars, who describe the outcome as a miscarriage of justice.
“I’ve never seen any such abuse of justice,” said Nan Goldin, an artist who emerged as a leading opioid activist after becoming addicted to OxyContin.
Goldin spoke to NPR ahead of the ruling, when it became clear Drain would approve liability releases for the Sacklers.
“It’s shocking. It’s really shocking. I’ve been deeply depressed and horrified,” she said.
In a series of legal briefs and during a bankruptcy trial over the last two weeks, the Department of Justice urged Drain to reject the settlement. Attorneys general for nine states and the District of Columbia also opposed the plan.
They argued the settlement would unfairly deny individuals and governments the right to sue the Sacklers, who themselves never filed for bankruptcy protection.
The Sacklers have never been charged and say they did nothing wrong
Critics say the introduction of OxyContin in the late 1990s when members of the Sackler family served on the company’s board helped usher in the opioid crisis.
More than 500,000 people in the United States have died from drug overdoses involving opioids, and millions more suffer from opioid use disorder.
Purdue Pharma has pleaded guilty twice to criminal wrongdoing in its marketing of OxyContin, first in 2007 and again last year. The Sacklers have never been charged and say they did nothing illegal or unethical.