‘Scum of the earth’: Drug victims face Purdue Pharma owners
New York – Releasing years of anguish and anger, victims of opioid abuse and those who have lost loved ones to a deadly addiction crisis stretching back more than two decades unloaded their emotions Thursday on members of the family they blame for fueling it.
The unusual hearing, conducted virtually in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, gave victims and survivors what they have wanted for years: the chance to confront members of the Sackler family who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and tell them about the lasting pain that addiction and overdoses have had in their lives.
“When you created OxyContin, you created so much loss for so many people. … I’m outraged that you haven’t owned up to the crisis that you’ve created,” said Kay Scarpone, addressing the three Sackler family members in attendance. She lost her son Joseph Scarpone, a former Marine, to addiction a month before his 26th birthday.
Appearing via audio was 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. Attending on video were Theresa Sackler, a British dame and wife of the late Mortimer D. Sackler, another of the brothers; and David Sackler, Richard Sackler’s son.
Theresa’s and David’s expressions remained largely neutral as people spoke on video about the pain of losing children after years of trying to get them adequate treatment, about their own journeys through addiction, and about caring for babies born into withdrawal and screaming in pain.
Under court rules, the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to the victims, who were selected by lawyers for creditors in the case. Some victims addressed the Sacklers from a law office in New York; others were at their homes around the country.
Janette 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 Brian 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.
Thursday 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 Brian’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.”
Her husband, Bill, a judge in Indianapolis, added: “I seriously doubt that anything any of us say today to these people will have any effect whatsoever. When we are done, David and Theresa will do whatever billionaires and dames do. Richard will hang up his phone and go do whatever greedy billionaire cowards do on their birthdays.”
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 your robbed of the person she could have been.”
The forum was unconventional for the White Plains, New York, courtroom of Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, who on Wednesday gave tentative approval to key elements of a plan to settle thousands of lawsuits against the company.
“The nature of today’s proceedings are unique and important,” Drain said to open the hearing. “The past and ongoing impact of OxyContin on individual people has always been of critical importance in this case.”
The settlement agreement is estimated to be worth at least $10 billion over time. It calls for members of the Sackler family to contribute $5.5 billion to $6 billion over 17 years to fight the opioid crisis. That’s an increase of more than $1 billion over a previous version that was rejected by another judge on appeal. Most of the money would be used for efforts to combat the crisis, but $750 million would go directly to victims or their survivors.
The overall settlement, which still requires actions by multiple courts to take effect, provides more than $150 million for Native American tribes and over $100 million for medical monitoring and payments for children born in withdrawal from opioids.
The plan also calls for family members to give up ownership of the company so it could become a new entity with its profits dedicated to stemming the epidemic. In exchange, Sackler family members would get protection from lawsuits over opioids.
The family also agreed not to oppose any efforts to remove the Sackler name from cultural and educational institutions they have supported and to make public a larger cache of company documents.
Thursday’s hearing may be the closest thing to a trial for Sackler family members, who victims say helped spark and prolong the epidemic.
Purdue Pharma starting selling OxyContin, a pioneering extended-release prescription painkiller, in 1996. At the same time, Purdue and other drug companies funded efforts to get doctors and other prescribers to think differently about opioids – suggesting they be used for some pain conditions for which the potent drugs were previously considered off limits.
Over the decades, there were waves of fatal overdoses, first associated with prescription drugs and then, as prescriptions became harder to obtain and some drugs became harder to manipulate for a quick high, from heroin. More recently, fentanyl and similar drugs have become the biggest killer.
Purdue has twice pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but no members of the Sackler family have been charged with crimes. There are no indications that any such charges are forthcoming, although seven U.S. senators last month asked the Department of Justice to consider charges.
Sackler family members have expressed regret for the crisis but have never unequivocally apologized.
Last week, they released a statement saying in part, “While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities.”
Other drugmakers, distributors, marketers and pharmacies involved in the opioid industry have faced similar lawsuits from state and local governments, Native American tribes and other entities.
Last month, drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and wholesalers AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced they were finalizing settlements worth a combined $26 billion. As in the proposed Purdue settlement, most of that money is required to be used to fight the crisis.
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.