The proposed agreement from the manufacturer of OxyContin has caused division among those affected by the opioid epidemic. The fate of the settlement now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court.

The maker of OxyContin has reached an agreement to resolve numerous lawsuits related to the harmful effects of opioids, potentially aiding in the fight against the overdose crisis that was fueled by the painkiller. However, not all of those affected by the drug are content with the outcome.

In return for relinquishing ownership of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and committing up to $6 billion towards addressing the crisis, the affluent Sackler family members would be protected from any civil legal action. However, they may still retain billions of dollars in profits from the sale of OxyContin.

On December 4th, the Supreme Court will listen to arguments regarding the potential violation of federal law by the agreement made as part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy resolution.

The main concern for the judges is whether the protection against legal action provided by bankruptcy can be applied to individuals like the Sacklers, who have not personally filed for bankruptcy. This legal matter has led to differing rulings in lower courts and could impact similar product liability cases resolved through bankruptcy proceedings.

However, the contract, despite allocating billions of dollars for addressing the opioid crisis and implementing treatment programs, also presents a moral dilemma that has caused division among those who have suffered the loss of loved ones or their own years due to opioids.

Ellen Isaacs’ son, Ryan Wroblewski, who was 33 years old, passed away in Florida in 2018. This was 17 years after he was initially given OxyContin for a back injury. Initially, when Ellen learned about a possible settlement that could provide compensation for individuals in similar situations, she registered. However, she has since reconsidered.

According to her, wealth may not bring resolution. Furthermore, accepting the agreement could result in further complications.

In an interview, she stated that anyone in the future will have the same ability as the Sacklers currently do.

In a legal document, attorney Mike Quinn described the Sackler releases as a form of special protection for individuals with immense wealth.

Lynn Wencus, from Wrentham, Massachusetts, tragically lost her 33-year-old son, Jeff, to a drug overdose in 2017.

At first, she was against the agreement with Purdue Pharma, but she has changed her mind. Despite not anticipating any financial compensation, she supports the resolution being finalized in the hope that it will alleviate her thoughts about Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, who she holds responsible for the opioid epidemic.

Wencus expressed that she is unable to move forward while this matter remains unresolved in court.

Purdue Pharma’s bold promotion of OxyContin, a potent prescription pain reliever released in 1996, is frequently blamed for fueling a widespread opioid crisis by influencing doctors to prioritize pain relief over the risks of addiction.

In 2007, the company admitted to mislabeling the medication and was fined over $600 million in penalties.

The medication and the company based in Stamford, Connecticut became strongly linked to the crisis, despite the fact that most prescribed pills were generic. The number of deaths from opioid overdoses has continued to rise, reaching 80,000 in recent years. This is due in part to individuals with substance abuse disorder having more difficulty obtaining pills and turning to heroin and, more recently, fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid.

Pharmaceutical companies, distributors, and pharmacies have reached a collective agreement to pay over $50 billion in order to resolve lawsuits brought by state, local, and Native American tribal governments, as well as other parties. These lawsuits alleged that the companies’ actions in marketing, sales, and monitoring contributed to the widespread opioid epidemic. The settlement from Purdue Pharma would be one of the largest, and it is one of only two that includes provisions for direct compensation to victims of the crisis. The compensation is expected to come from a pool of $750 million and could range from approximately $3,500 to $48,000 per person.

Attorneys representing over 60,000 individuals who are in favor of the agreement referred to it as a significant turning point in the opioid epidemic. They also acknowledged that no sum of money could completely make up for the harm caused by the deceptive promotion of OxyContin.

Following the aftermath, various books and documentaries have recounted the narrative of the Sackler family, as well as fictionalized portrayals in the streaming shows “Dopesick” and “Painkiller.”

Institutions of higher education and cultural institutions globally have eliminated the use of the family’s name in their galleries and structures.

The family has chosen to remain largely unseen by the public and have resigned from their company’s board and stopped receiving payments from it prior to the company’s bankruptcy. However, in the ten years leading up to this, they were compensated with over $10 billion, with half of that amount being used for tax payments according to family members.

During a bankruptcy hearing in 2021, certain individuals gave testimony to the judge stating that their family would not agree to the proposed legal settlement unless they were protected from any potential lawsuits.

During a 2022 court proceeding, two relatives joined via video while another listened through audio as over 20 individuals affected by opioids shared their experiences. One individual expressed, “You have contaminated our lives and had the nerve to hold us responsible for our deaths.”

Purdue Pharma has reached an agreement with the governments that have filed lawsuits against it, including some states that initially opposed the proposed plan.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee, a division of the Justice Department tasked with upholding the credibility of the bankruptcy system, has expressed opposition to the legal safeguards in place for members of the Sackler family. Attorney General Merrick Garland has also voiced his disapproval of the proposed plan.

The Justice Department has changed its stance on the settlement agreement after previously supporting it during Donald Trump’s presidency. The department and Purdue Pharma reached a deal in both a criminal and civil case, which involved $8.3 billion in penalties and forfeitures. However, the company would only have to pay the federal government $225 million if they followed through with the settlement plan.

In 2021, a federal judge at the trial level made a ruling that the settlement was not permissible. However, this year, a panel of federal appeals judges unanimously ruled in favor of the settlement, although one judge still had significant reservations about the agreement. The Supreme Court promptly accepted the case after being urged by the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden.

The inclusion of a third-party release in Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy is not a unique occurrence, as it has been permitted by Congress since 1994 in cases involving asbestos. This has been done even when not all parties involved in the case are in agreement.

These have also been utilized in other situations, such as resolving allegations of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America. In these cases, regional councils and sponsoring churches, as well as Catholic dioceses and their associated parishes and schools, have provided financial assistance.

Supporters of Purdue Pharma’s proposed settlement frequently argue that the law does not forbid third-party releases and that they may be essential in order to reach a mutually acceptable agreement among all parties involved.

Attorneys representing a sector of the Sackler family stated in a legal document that third-party releases are a common occurrence in bankruptcy proceedings and are not intended as a favor to the parties being released.


Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, NJ.


The updated version of this story reflects that the appeals court decision was unanimous, rather than 2-1.