Family members who lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court

Family members who lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 4, 2023 to oppose a bankruptcy deal that would allow Purdue Pharma to avoid liability for the deaths of millions of people from opioid use disorder.

(Photo: @aneripattani/Twitter)

Families Rally for Opioid Accountability as Supreme Court Hears Purdue Case

"I don't want their money," one woman who lost a son to the opioid crisis said of the Sackler family. "I want them in prison."

At the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, families whose loved ones are among the tens of thousands of Americans who have died of opioid use disorder each year over the past two decades rallied to push the nine justices to reject a proposed bankruptcy plan that would give the former owners of Purdue Pharma legal immunity—with many joining the U.S. Justice Department in arguing that the company should not be released from accountability for the opioid epidemic.

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in 2019, as the number of Americans killed by opioids hit 50,000 and the OxyContin manufacturer faced thousands of lawsuits alleging its aggressive marketing of the addictive painkiller had fueled the rising death toll.

The company agreed to settle the lawsuits for $10 billion, with the Sackler family—which oversaw Purdue when OxyContin was introduced and flooded communities across the U.S.—contributing $4 billion. In exchange, the Sacklers would be shielded from future lawsuits.

The bankruptcy plan—which now includes $6 billion from the Sacklers following a push from lawsuit plaintiffs—has been approved by state and local governments, tribes, and families and individuals who would be entitled to money.

But the U.S. Trustee Program, a watchdog at the Justice Department, has joined some families in arguing that the Sacklers should not be shielded from liability for the opioid crisis.

"No Sackler immunity at any $$," read one sign held by a woman outside the Supreme Court on Monday, while another said, "My dead son does not release Sacklers."

The issue at hand in the case, Harrington v. Purdue Pharma, is whether it is legal to give a third party—the Sackler family—legal immunity in a bankruptcy case even though they themselves have not declared bankruptcy, also known as nonconsensual third-party release.

A lawyer for groups and individuals told the court that families and governments are highly unlikely to get any more out of Purdue and the Sacklers than the money the company and family have offered as part of the deal.

The plan would include $161 million in a trust set aside for Native American tribes and $700 million to $750 million in a trust for families and individuals who were able to file claims, with payouts expected to range from about $3,500 to $48,000. Governments would use the money to set up addiction treatment centers and other programs to mitigate the opioid crisis.

"Forget a better deal—there is no other deal," lawyer Pratik Shah told the Supreme Court on Monday.

Curtis Gannon, representing the U.S. Trustee Program, noted that the Sackler family already showed that a "better deal" could be possible when it offered $6 billion for the plan instead of $4 billion. The Justice Department is advocating for a new settlement that would not include nonconsensual third-party releases, saying the current bankruptcy deal violates federal law.

"We do hope there is another deal at the end of this," said Gannon.

The justices appeared split on the case, in which a ruling is expected next summer. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted that appeals courts do not allow bankruptcy plans that take away the rights of alleged victims to sue parties that have not declared bankruptcy.

Outside the court, Alexis Pleus, who lost her son to opioid use disorder, told Aneri Pattani of KFF Health News that many families, including hers, will not be entitled to money under the current deal because they are required to provide records such as the original opioid prescription.

Beth Macy, author of the book Dopesick, told CNN Monday morning that while some families "are divided" about whether the bankruptcy plan and payouts should move forward, as the U.S. Trustee Program "has pointed out, only 20% of the families who were eligible to vote on [the proposal], even voted."

"I don't want their money," Jen Trejo, whose son Christopher was prescribed OxyContin at age 15 and died of an overdose when he was 32, told Pattani. "I want them in prison."

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