Supreme Court grapples with Purdue Pharma’s settlement

Awaiting a decision expected by June 2024, the case stands as a pivotal moment in America's ongoing struggle against opioid crisis.

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A historic hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court is currently scrutinizing a significant settlement proposal by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. At the heart of the debate is whether to grant legal immunity to the company’s owners, the Sackler family, amidst the nation’s devastating opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma, since introducing OxyContin in 1996, has been implicated in the opioid epidemic that has claimed over 80,000 American lives. Experts and legal findings have repeatedly highlighted Purdue’s aggressive marketing and its disregard for addiction risks as key factors in fueling the crisis.

The Supreme Court case, Harrington v. Purdue Pharma, puts under examination a settlement that emerged from Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy proceedings. This deal, which a majority of victims support, proposes about $6 billion from the Sacklers for addressing opioid addiction and related deaths, while offering them immunity from future lawsuits.

Justice Elena Kagan voiced her perspective on the opposition to the agreement, stating, “I’m wondering why one nutcase holdout should hold up something like this,” referring to claimants who consider the deal too soft. Pratik Shah, defending the deal for the supportive victims, stressed its necessity: “Without the release [of liability for the Sacklers], the plan will unravel, Chapter 7 liquidation will follow, and there will be no viable path to any victim recovery.” His blunt addition, “Forget a better deal. There is no other deal,” highlights the urgency and uniqueness of the situation.

Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon, representing the Biden administration, countered this view, arguing that the deal allows the Sacklers to evade significant financial responsibility, which he claims conflicts with the core principles of bankruptcy law.

At the center of this controversy is the legal shield proposed for the Sackler family, protecting them against future opioid-related lawsuits while enabling them to keep their vast profits from the drug. This part of the settlement was initially blocked by a federal district court but was later approved by a federal appeals court.

The Supreme Court’s steps became a stage for protests, where family members of opioid victims displayed powerful messages like, “My dead son does not release Sacklers.” These protests visibly demonstrate the societal scars left by the opioid epidemic and the collective yearning for justice.

The Justices showed a divide in their views. Justice Neil Gorsuch raised due process concerns, questioning the precedent this case might set in bankruptcy law. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson shared this apprehension, especially about the potential undue benefit for the Sacklers.

Chief Justice John Roberts pondered the broader implications, suggesting this might be a “clear case for the application of what is called our major questions doctrine,” while Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized the judicial history of approving similar plans and the overwhelming approval of the plan by victims and their families.

The proposed settlement would allocate payments between $3,500 and $48,000 to individual victims and survivors. However, its rejection could disrupt the nation’s bankruptcy system and the way mass injury cases are handled.

Voices from the victims’ families resonate with a mixture of desperation and defiance. Alexis Pleus, who lost her son to opioid use disorder, and Beth Macy, author of “Dopesick,” represent the diversity of opinions among the affected families, with some rejecting the settlement in favor of stronger accountability measures.

Jen Trejo, whose son succumbed to opioid addiction, stated, “I don’t want their money; I want them in prison,” expressing a sentiment shared by many who seek justice beyond financial compensation.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Purdue Pharma’s settlement proposal carries immense significance, not only in legal terms, but also in its potential to provide closure to thousands of families affected by the opioid crisis. Awaiting a decision expected by June 2024, the case stands as a pivotal moment in America’s ongoing struggle against opioid addiction.

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