FILE - Fake pill bottles with messages about OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are displayed during a protest outside the courthouse where the bankruptcy of the company is taking place in White Plains, N.Y., on Aug. 9, 2021.  A judge said he is extending legal protections for members of the Sackler family, Wednesday, March 2, 2022, who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma by another three weeks to buy time to work out a new settlement to thousands of lawsuits over the opioid crisis (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Opioids, Bankruptcy, and Big Pharma Ethics: Harrington v. Purdue Pharma L.P.

In December of this year, oral arguments will begin on an appeal of a prominent corporate bankruptcy case, that of Purdue Pharma, whose owners, the Sackler family, are attempting to escape civil liability for their role in contributing to the opioid epidemic. 

Purdue Pharma is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and one of the most controversial. They are the creators of many drugs, but their most famous product is oxycodone, better known as OxyContin.

Despite receiving FDA approval, which is itself a contested decision, OxyContin and other opioids have led to over 500,000 deaths since the drug’s release in 1996 with 80,411 people dying from opioid overdoses in 2021 alone. Yet, the addiction and overdoses that can occur from taking OxyContin was not an unintentional consequence of this drug. In fact, released documents from the Purdue Pharma company demonstrate that the addictive elements of OxyContin were not only foreseen, but a part of the marketing strategy. 

For starters, OxyContin was peddled to doctors as a miracle painkiller that relieved pain for 12 hours, but most patients reported that the effects of the drug wore off after at most 8 hours, not only leading to extreme withdrawal symptoms but also encouraging patients to take more and more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. 

According to memos released about the marketing strategy of Purdue Pharma, the company knew that the drug did not provide pain relief for the amount of time advertised before it even went to market. Further, doctors were discouraged by Purdue from prescribing small doses more frequently, in favor of prescribing stronger doses that often led to the exacerbation of patients’ dependence on the drugs.

A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Theodore J. Cicero and his colleagues directly cited Purdue’s intense, predatory marketing strategy as a contributor to the United States opioid epidemic, finding that 75 percent of heroin addicts began by abusing opioids, primarily OxyContin.

As early as 2000, OxyContin has been continuously labeled as one of the most commonly abused pain medications on the market, and Purdue has come under heavy scrutiny for capitalizing on the addictive qualities of their drug and the subsequent widespread abuse. A Justice Department document released in 2018 showed that Purdue was completely aware of “reports that the pills were being crushed and snorted; stolen from pharmacies; and that some doctors were being charged with selling prescriptions.” Yet, they refused to discontinue production of this drug and even included in their company memos ideas on how to maximize the “street value” of OxyContin. In 2019, an infamous 2006 document known as the Ogrosky Memo came back to light, as it demonstrated that Purdue executives lied to Congress regarding their awareness of their role in the opioid epidemic and had been committing multiple crimes to keep OxyContin on the market and boost their sales. 

This brings us to the case at hand. By 2019, Purdue Pharma was battling over 1,000 civil and criminal lawsuits pursued against them by state and local governments. The Sackler family, who owned Purdue Pharma since the mid to late 1900s, opted to file for bankruptcy so that they could escape criminal charges and remain billionaires. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, foiled this plan as they uncovered the Sackler family’s plot to reallocate Purdue Pharma’s funds to family members’ private accounts overseas, which caused many state governments who had been pursuing charges against the company to begin threatening to hold individual family members criminally liable for their roles in the opioid crisis. 

In 2021, the Sacklers sought legal protection without actually filing for personal bankruptcy to ensure that they could not be found civilly or criminally liable. They also began pursuing a settlement to turn Purdue Pharma into a public benefit corporation, which means that the Sackler would not make any additional money off of OxyContin, though they could keep their previously acquired funds. This was quickly shut down because judges overseeing bankruptcy cannot provide protection from legal liability and the settlement would cheat victims out of their due process rights.

In 2022, a settlement was approved by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals that would see the Sacklers relinquishing ownership and funds of Purdue Pharma and paying around $6 billion to opioid creditors, effectively shielding the family from personal civil liability

Now, in 2023, the Supreme Court has paused this settlement to hear an appeal made by the Department of Justice as to the settlement’s legality, claiming that the Sackler family should not be protected from civil liability lawsuits and that victims and the families of deceased victims of the opioid epidemic deserve not only compensation but an admission of guilt from the Sackler family. 

Experts are very split on what the outcome of this case will be. Some claim that the Supreme Court will unanimously strike down the settlement. Yet, others argue that the pro-corporate ideologies of many justices, including Neil Gorsuch, will lead to the settlement being upheld. 

Many have theorized that nixing the Sackler family’s play for immunity might even be a hasty and thinly veiled attempt to salvage the Supreme Court’s public standing, as recent decisions have led to the Court having a mere 44% approval rate, the lowest it has been in the three decades that public opinion polling has been conducted. Others still argue that this is instead a way for justices to take on the role of savior for billionaires and executives, ensuring that their future financial interest is secure.

No matter what happens, all can agree that this decision will be monumentally impactful in either upholding or revamping the precedent set by past Supreme Court decisions, which have often sided with corporations and allowed for insiders to escape liability for committing often brazen criminal acts.

Gabriella Carter is a junior from Martinsburg, WV, studying Sociology, English, and Child Policy Research. 

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