Sharp Condemnation of Sackler Family’s Immunity from Opioid Lawsuits 

A US court’s decision to provide legal immunity to a family that made billions by marketing opioids as “non addictive painkillers” in exchange for a $6 billion settlement has evoked sharp criticism from politicians and health advocates. 

The US Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the Sackler family will enjoy protection from current and future civil suits related to the role played by their company, Purdue Pharma, in the country’s opioid crisis. 

Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in 2019 and this order came as part of the court review in the bankruptcy process. The court added that the $6 billion paid as settlement will be used to address opioid addiction issues across the country. 

Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren called for plugging the loophole in the existing bankruptcy laws that allows bad actors behind bankrupt companies to claim legal immunity even when they have not filed for personal bankruptcy.  

“Purdue and the Sackler family destroyed thousands of lives in their relentless pursuit of profit. They cravenly sought to hide behind our country’s broken bankruptcy code to escape justice and shield their blood money,” tweeted William Tong, the Attorney-General of Connecticut. 

“Since 2012, members of the Sackler family have donated over $10 million to the Federalist Society, the group rigging the courts in favor of extreme right-wing conservatives and corporate interests. It’s not a justice system if it’s also an auction,” tweeted Melanie D’Arrigo, the executive director of the New York for Health campaign. 

Settlement to address opioid crisis

The amount to be paid by the Sackler family as a settlement will be used to address the growing opioid crisis in the US, the court said. The money will be paid over a set period of time, and is expected to fund rehabilitation programmes run by the government. Around $750 million will be distributed amongst individual victims and families affected by the opioid crisis. 

As per the terms of the settlement, the family has also allowed their name to be taken off buildings, scholarships and fellowships. Several institutions including The Louvre have already dissociated themselves from the Sackler family in response to the company’s role in America’s opioid crisis. 

The Sackler family welcomed the decision in a statement and added that the decision will be instrumental in bringing relief to the people and the communities in need: “The Sackler families believe the long-awaited implementation of this resolution is critical to providing substantial resources for people and communities in need. We are pleased with the court’s decision to allow the agreement to move forward and look forward to it taking effect as soon as possible.”

While the latest order protects the families from civil suits, it does not provide immunity from criminal charges. 

Purdue Pharma and its role in the opioid crisis

Purdue Pharma was founded by the Sackler brothers, Mortimer, Richard and Raymond, and is blamed for fuelling the opioid crisis in the US. Since the 1990s, the company has produced OxyContin, a prescription-only extended-release painkiller.

The company is accused of funding research that severely understated the effects of opioid addiction and of misleading doctors. The Sackler family still holds controlling shares in the company. 

Almost immediately after the drug’s launch, its abuse began in remote pockets of the US, which then rapidly spread across the country. The drug’s warning label cautioned users from grinding it and snorting or mixing it in water and injecting it since doing so will bypass the “extended-release mechanism” and lead to rapid release and absorption of the drug; and this warning ended up as an instruction manual for vulnerable users.

Over time, several reports of OxyContin users dying after consuming the drug came to light and Purdue maintained that the usage of the drug was the responsibility of the individual. The company has previously pleaded guilty to charges related to opioid marketing, but the Sackler family has denied any wrongdoing in this regard. 

According to the US CDC, nearly 75% of the deaths caused by drug overdose in the US in 2020 involved an opioid. Between 1999 and 2020, more than 564,000 people were killed due to opioid overdose, including nearly 69,000 deaths in 2020. The first wave of the US opioid crisis began in the 1990s and overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have been on the rise since 1999.  

In 2019, after being bombarded with hundreds of lawsuits for their involvement in the opioid business, Purdue filed for bankruptcy. The Sackler family, however, did not file for personal bankruptcy. Their wealth is estimated to be around $11 billion, with a substantial amount stashed in offshore accounts. 

The company will now cease to exist and its assets will be transferred to a new company “Knoa”, which will be independently monitored. The new company will manufacture opioid reversal drugs and addiction treatments on a no-profit basis. It will continue to manufacture and sell OxyContin and use its profits to fund the settlement plan. 

Image Credits: US Drug Enforcement Administration.

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