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OxyContin maker’s settlement plan divides victims of opioid crisis. Now it’s up to the Supreme Court

by Gabriel Martinez
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OxyContin settlement

The settlement proposal by the manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, has stirred both hope and controversy in the ongoing battle against the opioid crisis. While the agreement, which involves Purdue Pharma relinquishing ownership and contributing up to $6 billion to address the crisis, could potentially aid in combating the overdose epidemic triggered by the painkiller, it has left some victims unsatisfied.

One of the key points of contention is the exemption of the wealthy Sackler family, who own the drug manufacturer, from civil lawsuits. In exchange for their financial contributions, the Sacklers could retain billions of dollars in profits from OxyContin sales while being shielded from legal action. The Supreme Court is scheduled to deliberate on December 4th to determine whether this aspect of the settlement, which is part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy resolution, complies with federal law.

The central legal issue revolves around whether bankruptcy protections can extend to individuals like the Sacklers, who have not personally declared bankruptcy. This question has resulted in conflicting rulings in lower courts and has broader implications for future product liability lawsuits settled through the bankruptcy system.

However, the settlement also presents a moral dilemma that has divided those who have suffered due to opioids. For instance, Ellen Isaacs, who lost her 33-year-old son, Ryan Wroblewski, to an opioid overdose, initially supported the settlement but has since reconsidered. She believes that money may not bring closure and fears that allowing this deal could set a precedent for others in the future.

On the other hand, Lynn Wencus, who also lost her 33-year-old son to an overdose, has come to support the settlement. She hopes that finalizing the agreement will help her move past the lingering presence of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, whom she holds responsible for the opioid crisis.

Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin, a potent prescription painkiller, is widely regarded as a catalyst for the nationwide opioid epidemic. The company previously pleaded guilty to misbranding the drug in 2007 and paid substantial fines. Despite the majority of opioids being generic drugs, opioid-related overdose deaths have continued to rise, reaching 80,000 in recent years due to shifts toward heroin and more potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Various parties, including drug companies, wholesalers, and pharmacies, have agreed to pay over $50 billion to settle lawsuits related to their marketing, sales, and monitoring practices that fueled the opioid crisis. The Purdue Pharma settlement is among the largest and includes provisions for direct compensation to victims from a $750 million fund, with expected payouts ranging from approximately $3,500 to $48,000.

While some view this settlement as a significant step in addressing the opioid crisis, others see it as a complex moral and legal issue. The Sackler family’s involvement and the protection they receive remain at the center of the debate, highlighting the intricate nature of resolving such a far-reaching public health crisis through legal means.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about OxyContin settlement

What is the OxyContin settlement about?

The OxyContin settlement involves the manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, agreeing to settle thousands of lawsuits related to the harm caused by opioids. Purdue Pharma would relinquish ownership and contribute up to $6 billion to address the opioid crisis triggered by OxyContin.

Why are some victims not satisfied with the settlement?

Some victims are unsatisfied because the settlement includes a provision that exempts the wealthy Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, from civil lawsuits. This means the Sacklers could potentially keep billions of dollars in profits from OxyContin sales while avoiding legal action.

What is the role of the Supreme Court in this settlement?

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on whether the part of the settlement involving the Sackler family violates federal law. The central issue is whether bankruptcy protections can extend to individuals like the Sacklers, who have not declared bankruptcy themselves. Conflicting lower court decisions have arisen on this matter.

How does this settlement impact the opioid crisis?

While the settlement includes billions of dollars for opioid abatement and treatment programs, it also raises a moral conundrum. Some argue that allowing the Sacklers to be shielded from lawsuits sets a troubling precedent for future cases.

What led to the opioid crisis, and what is Purdue Pharma’s role?

Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller, is often cited as a catalyst for the nationwide opioid epidemic. Despite the majority of opioids being generic drugs, OxyContin played a significant role in persuading doctors to prescribe painkillers with less regard for addiction dangers.

Are there other settlements related to the opioid crisis?

Yes, various parties, including drug companies, wholesalers, and pharmacies, have agreed to pay over $50 billion to settle lawsuits related to their marketing, sales, and monitoring practices that contributed to the opioid crisis. The Purdue Pharma settlement is one of the largest and includes provisions for direct compensation to victims.

How have the Sackler family been impacted by this controversy?

The Sackler family’s involvement in the opioid crisis has led to their story being told in books, documentaries, and TV series. Museums and universities around the world have removed their name from galleries and buildings. The family members have largely stayed out of the public eye and have not received payouts from the company since before it entered bankruptcy. They insisted on legal protections as a condition for contributing to the proposed settlement.

What is the stance of the U.S. Justice Department on this settlement?

The U.S. Justice Department initially supported the settlement during the Trump administration but later objected to the legal protections for Sackler family members. Attorney General Merrick Garland also criticized the plan, leading to a change in the department’s position.

Is this type of third-party release common in bankruptcy cases?

Yes, third-party releases, where individuals who have not declared bankruptcy are shielded from lawsuits, have been used in various bankruptcy cases, including asbestos and sexual abuse settlements. Proponents argue that they can be necessary to reach a settlement that all parties will agree to.

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