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In a seismic victory for justice and accountability that re-opens the deeply flawed recent September, 2020 settlement of the Purdue pharma bankruptcy case, the Sackler family will be forced to confront the pain and devastation they have allegedly caused. Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled, Dec.16, 2021,that the settlement, part of a restructuring plan for Purdue approved in September by a bankruptcy judge, Robert Drain, U.S. Bankruptcy Court,White Plaines, N.Y., should not go forward because it releases the company’s owners, members of the billionaire Sackler family, from liability in civil opioid-related cases.
Flying under the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of America’s richest families, the billionaire Sackler family who fully own Purdue Pharma and put themselves forward as the epitome of good works funded by the fruits of the capitalist system, are being held to account for allegedly earning their fortune at the expense of millions of people who are addicted. Although it’s shocking how long they have gotten away with it, legal proceedings against them, if carried out in full, may not, unfortunately, avoid the ‘justice delayed, justice denied’ conundrum. By seeking a ‘release from liability’ from the federal court handling Purdue’s bankruptcy case, the court could help them hold on to their wealth by releasing them from liability for the ravages of the opiod epidemic caused by OxyContin, and allow them to continue benefiting at the expense of victims.
In a bankruptcy filing, a New York Times article,”The Sacklers Could Get Away With It”, reported, “debts are forgiven — “discharged,” in legal terms — after debtors commit the full value of all of their assets (with the exception of certain types of property, like a primary home) to pay their creditors. That is not, however, what the Sacklers want, and indeed the members of the family have not filed for bankruptcy themselves. What they proposed instead is to be shielded from all OxyContin lawsuits, protecting their tremendous personal wealth from victims’ claims against them. What’s more, a full liability release would provide the Sacklers with more immunity than they could ever obtain in a personal bankruptcy filing, which would not protect them from legal action for fraud, willful and malicious personal injury, or from punitive damages”.
PROFIT, DEATH, DYING
The untimely overdosing death of famous singer Tom Petty can be traced to the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma according to many addiction specialists.The family of Tom Petty said that the singer’s death was caused by an accidental overdose with a cocktail of prescription drugs and pain pills, including oxycodone and fentanyl. Although prescriptions for opioids fell in response to the crisis, Americans didn’t shake the habit or seek rehab; they turned to heroin instead. Four out of five people in the US who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Alarmingly, street heroin started being secretly cut with the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl.
By misleading physicians about the safety of OxyContin in order to earn $35bn in sales revenue from the toxic pain drug between 1995 and 2015, many addiction specialists say that Purdue Pharma owners, the Sackler family, bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for many deaths and today’s opioid crisis.
EPITOMES OF GOOD WORKS?
With charitable foundations on both sides of the Atlantic, the Sacklers, who are based in New York, have donated millions to the arts and sponsored faculty at Yale and many other universities. In each case, the family’s name is displayed prominently as the benefactor. Forbes listed the collective estimated worth of the 20 core family members at $14bn in 2015, partly derived from $35bn in sales revenue from OxyContin between 1995 and 2015. The name Sackler is displayed in the forecourt at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was noted in the Sackler Gallery at the Serpentine in 2013. The ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur has a Sackler Wing in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Sackler Centre for Arts Education at the Guggenheim and many other arts institutions around the world have galleries or wings named after the Sackler family.
But few know Sackler wealth comes from Purdue Pharma, a private Connecticut company the family developed and wholly owns. In 1995, the company revolutionised the prescription painkiller market with the invention of OxyContin, a drug that is a legal, concentrated, chemical version of morphine or heroin. It was designed to be safe; when it first came to market, its slow-release formula was unique. After winning government approval it was hailed as a medical breakthrough, an illusion that many now refer to as “magical thinking”.
It was marketed to physicians, many of whom were taken on lavish junkets, given misleading information and paid to give talks on the drug . Patients were wrongly told the pills were a reliable long-term solution to chronic pain, and in some cases were offered coupons for a month’s free sample. DEA data says that the US has been flooded with about 10 billion pain pills a year. Most pain drugs were sold by a small number of pharmacies, with prescriptions for these drugs written by a small number of physicians at pill mill clinics that charged cash for prescriptions. Data has shown these clinics were good OxyContin customers for the Sacklers/Purdue Pharma. Launched in 1996, Purdues OxyContin sales strategy was highly successful for twenty years because it allegedlconcentrated aggressive OxyContin marketing programs on what Purdue labeled ‘supercore clinics’, i.e., pill mills.
In a New Yorker Magazine expose, Allen Frances, M.D., former chair of psychiatry at Duke University school of medicine said, “Their name (Sackler/Purdue Pharma) has been pushed forward as the epitome of good works and of the fruits of the capitalist system. But, when it comes down to it, they’ve earned this fortune at the expense of millions of people who are addicted. It’s shocking how they have gotten away with it.” Long overdue, the Sacklers and Big Pharma are finally starting to pay for the opiod crisis.
Unfortunately,”the bankruptcy court has granted injunctions stopping proceedings in several hundred lawsuits charging that Sackler family members directed the aggressive marketing campaign for OxyContin; it and other opioids have been implicated in the addictions of millions of patients and the deaths of several hundred thousand.”
The Sacklers would walk away with an estimated several billion of OxyContin profits while leaving unresolved a crucial question asked by victims and their families: Did the Sacklers create and coordinate fraudulent marketing that helped make their best-selling drug a deadly national scourge? With that question left unanswered, many of those injured by OxyContin would feel victimized again.
Legal experts, the NYT writes, conclude that “allowing the bankruptcy court to impose a global OxyContin settlement may at first appear to be an efficient way to resolve litigation that could drag on for years, the Sacklers will benefit from this expediency at the expense of victims. At stake is whether there will ever be a fair assessment of responsibility for America’s deadly prescription drug epidemic. Protection from all OxyContin liability for the Sackler family would be an end-run around the reckoning that justice requires”.
Just like all Big Pharm corporations, Sackler/Purdue pharma are dedicated to the bottom line of maximization of profit; everything else is of insignificant value compared to this. Their large and aggressive marketing campaign to sell the supposedly ‘safe’ pain drug OxyContin appears to have disregarded all boundaries and turned this dangerous drug into immense profit for themselves. There are always among us those self-serving and toxic individual and corporate predators who regard democracy/government regulation/community as an obstacle to their greed and avarice. The opioid epidemic is now burgeoning in the U.S. with millions of ruined lives, individuals, families. The Sacklers want to retreat back into their money and vast profiteering, and let other people clean up and pay for the overall and inevitable long-term suffering, death and destruction they allegedly created.
JUDGE OVERTURNS PURDUE/SACKLER OPIOID SETTLEMENT
Judge McMahon agreed with lawyers for the U.S. Trustee who argued that shutting down the ability of plaintiffs to sue the Sacklers violated the plaintiffs’ due process rights. The Sacklers, they argued, should not be rewarded for their contribution because they “created the need for that money” by taking it out of the company in the first place, setting up the situation where they would be protected from lawsuits “by piggybacking on the bankruptcy of their company.” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement, “The bankruptcy court did not have the authority to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family.” Cheers and many thanks to Judge Colleen McMahon.
F. Douglas Stephenson, LCSW, is a retired psychotherapist and former instructor of social work in the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry. He is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program.