Three members of a plutocratic clan finally got a direct, bitter earful from those who suffered grievous harms from the opioid crisis which was fostered, critics say, by their family business — Purdue Pharmaceutical and its powerful prescription painkiller OxyContin.
As part of prospective $10 billion settlement of thousands of lawsuits by states, counties, cities, Indian tribes, and individuals against Purdue, members of the Sackler family have, at long last, expressed “regret” about the opioids crisis, for which they also emphatically deny any responsibility.
But they also agreed that a federal bankruptcy judge would conduct an unusual hearing at which claimants could confront the family. The Sacklers listened at the session to the speakers, as agreed upon, without comment. The family members, as the Associated Press reported, were:
- Richard Sackler, the former Purdue president and board chair who has said the company and family bear no responsibility for the opioid crisis; he is a son of Raymond Sackler, one of the three brothers who in the 1950s bought the company that became Purdue Pharma.
- Theresa Sackler, a British dame and wife of the late Mortimer D. Sackler, another of the brothers.
- And David Sackler, Richard Sackler’s son.
They were addressed by 26 people from 19 states, the New York Times reported. Here’s a sampling of powerful quotes from the speakers’ remarks and their context, as reported by news organizations.
- “You murdered my daughter and destroyed my family,” said Donna Mazurek, whose daughter, Paige, was prescribed Purdue Pharma’s opioid painkiller OxyContin after a root canal, became addicted, spiraled into heroin and overdosed when she was 22.
- “I pray that criminal charges are filed upon you,” said Tiffinee Scott, a Maryland mother who described finding the dead body of her 28-year-old daughter Tiarra, who was first given OxyContin to treat pain from sickle cell disease. Ms. Scott (shown in screenshot from an AP video) displayed a photo of a large plastic garbage bag teeming with opioid pill bottles. “Have you revived one of your children from an overdose?” she asked the Sacklers.
- “I hope that every single victim’s face haunts your every waking moment and your sleeping ones, too,” said Ryan Hampton, of Las Vegas, who has been in recovery for seven years after an addiction that began with an OxyContin prescription to treat knee pain led to overdoses and periods of homelessness. “You poisoned our lives and had the audacity to blame us for dying,” he said. “I hope you hear our names in your dreams. I hope you hear the screams of the families who find their loved ones dead on the bathroom floor. I hope you hear the sirens. I hope you hear the heart monitor as it beats along with a failing pulse.”
- Jannette Adams told of her late husband, Dr. Thomas Adams, who was a physician and church deacon in Mississippi and a missionary in Africa and Haiti. He became addicted to opioids after pharmaceutical representatives pitched them, she said. After a terrible decline, he died in 2015. “I’m angry, I’m pissed, but I move on,” Adams said. “Because our society lost a person who could have made so many more contributions. … You took so much from us, but we plan to, through our faith in God, move forward.”
- Kristy Nelson played for the Sacklers a tense recording of a 911 call in which she summoned police to her home the day her son Bryan died of an opioid overdose. The dispatcher asked whether his skin had gone blue; she said it was white. She said she replays the call in her mind daily. [March 10] was Richard Sackler’s 77th birthday, according to public records. Later this month, Nelson said, she and her husband will visit the cemetery on what would have been Bryan’s 34th birthday. “I understand today’s your birthday, Richard, how will you be celebrating?” she said. “I guarantee it won’t be in the cemetery. … You have truly benefitted from the death of children. You are scum of the earth.”
- Jenny Scully, a nurse in New York, gave birth in 2014 while on OxyContin and other opioids prescribed years earlier when she was dealing with both breast cancer and injuries from an accident. She was told her baby would be healthy, Scully said, but the little girl has had a lifetime of physical, developmental, and emotional difficulties. “You have destroyed so many lives,” she said, pulling her daughter into view. “Take a good look at this beautiful little girl you robbed of the person she could have been.”
- “When you created OxyContin, you created so much loss for so many people,” said Kay Scarpone, who lost her son Joseph, a former Marine, to addiction a month before his 26th birthday. “I’m outraged that you haven’t owned up to the crisis that you’ve created.”
Under the latest and apparently final settlement via bankruptcy court and mediation, the Sacklers will contribute $6 billion of a family fortune that may be as much as $13 billion to resolve thousands of civil claims against Purdue. In exchange, the family will be shielded from further civil liability, though they have no protection against criminal charges. Authorities have not publicly discussed criminal charges against them, and experts have said these would be difficult to sustain. The Sacklers have agreed they will not contest any efforts by recipients to scrub the family name from the many philanthropic donations made by the clan over the years to museums, colleges and universities, and medical institutions and programs.
The family, unlike other defendants in civil lawsuits tied to the opioid crisis, managed to shift their legal challenges into a bankruptcy court of the Sacklers’ choosing. The federal judiciary, in seeking to deal with a mountain of opioids cases, had consolidated the claims in a Cleveland court, asking the judge there to see if he could get the many parties to strike a “global” settlement akin to the historic deal that earlier resolved an avalanche of Big Tobacco lawsuits.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, notably opioids.
Communities across the country have been devastated by the overwhelming problems of addiction, debilitation, and death linked to opioids, their exceedingly powerful synthetic variants like fentanyl, and the street drugs that surged as part of the crisis. The abuse of opioids has led to spiking, deadly overdoses that killed 500,000 Americans over a decade, as well as 100,000 victims last year alone as the opioid crisis worsened during the loneliness, isolation, and despair of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have warned that criminals have turned to tainting even lesser intoxicants like marijuana with street fentanyl, which packs a potentially deadly wallop in the smallest of doses. Now, experts also warn that criminals increasingly are pairing street fentanyl with xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer, in a toxic and lethal combination nicknamed “tranq dope.”
The opioid crisis took time to blow up, fueled by Big Pharma and abetted by doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, regulators, and many others in health care. Those harmed by the crisis — despite what critics may say — have sought remedies in the civil system with reason. They put their faith in lawsuits, not always the fastest approach, not only to secure the financial and other resources required to deal with this crisis but also to deal with systemic problems. And, as the emotional testimony in bankruptcy court indicated, to seek justice. It is a crucial part of civil proceedings for victims to confront and hold accountable those who have done them harm.
While progress appeared to have been made in dealing with this mess, this public health menace exploded anew during the pandemic. It demands a full-on, urgent response to put down. We have much work to do to halt one of the major health crises confronting the country.