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Uncertainty follows court dismissal of Purdue opioid deal

Federal judge’s decision to reject multibillion-dollar opioid settlement involving OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma hailed as a step to justice by advocates who have long called for greater accountability from the family owner of the company.

But not everyone involved in the difficult settlement process is rejoicing, including some advocates who have lost loved ones to the country’s current – and growing – drug crisis. The ruling by New York-based U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon on Thursday is a blow to those who have sought to use billions of dollars from Purdue and members of the Sackler family involved in the business to fight against the epidemic.

“It could go on for months or even years,” said Cheryl Juaire of Massachusetts, who has lost two adult sons to opioid overdoses.

Juaire founded an organization for grieving parents and was the voice of victims on a committee during the Purdue bankruptcy proceedings that led to the settlement being overturned this week.

“Every day, 265 people die. Lawyers get richer because they still have a job to do and lives are lost, ”she said. “When is someone going to say, ‘This is a matter of life? “”

Avi Israel also lost a son to opioid addiction, but sees this week’s decision differently. As Juaire, he has dedicated his life to fighting drug addiction, starting Save the Michaels of the World, a group that has helped 1,200 people in western New York City seek drug treatment this year.

He said Thursday’s decision was the correct one.

“You could give me all the money in the world; that won’t bring my son back, ”said Israel, who also sits on a state council that helps distribute the money New York brings in from opioid-related litigation.

Allowing lawsuits against members of the Sackler family to go ahead could have a more lasting effect in deterring business leaders from pushing drugs they know could cause harm.

“I want them to know what it does for millions of us this holiday season, when you sit at the table and stare at an empty chair and know that all of it could have been avoided,” did he declare.

The contrasting views on justice in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy reflect a complicated case at the center of multiple lawsuits aimed at holding pharmaceutical industry players accountable for the national epidemic of drug addiction and overdose. The combined, prescription and illicit versions of the drugs have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the United States over the past two decades, and this has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. Federal officials say there have been 100,000 overdose deaths in the 12 months that ended in April, the majority of them from opioids.

The Purdue case is the most publicized, but it is not the largest opioid colony in progress. Drug distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, along with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to a settlement worth $ 26 billion over time. The deal is based on a critical mass of local governments giving up their right to sue and sign.

Facing thousands of lawsuits from state and local governments, labor unions, hospitals and others, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019 as part of an effort to settle the cases. After negotiations and mediation, he reached an agreement supported by the overwhelming majority of state and local governments, as well as people with demands who voted.

The plan calls on members of the Sackler family to relinquish ownership of Purdue. The transformed company would continue to manufacture OxyContin, but with profits to fight the opioid crisis. He would also try to develop inexpensive or free drugs to reverse overdoses and treat addictions. Members of the Sackler family are said to contribute $ 4.5 billion over time in cash and charitable assets.

Most of the money would go to government entities, which would be forced to use it to fight the crisis and not just to fill their budgets.

“The most important thing for me is that in the plan every penny has to be used for the epidemic,” Juaire said.

Due to advocacy by Juaire and other victims’ representatives, part of the settlement – $ 750 million – would go to individual victims and their families. Payments were to range from $ 3,500 to $ 48,000. This sets the Purdue deal apart from other large opioid colonies, where money for individual victims is not included.

But the deal came with a catch that angered many attorneys, state attorneys general and others: The Sacklers would be protected from all current and future civil lawsuits regarding the opioid toll.

As part of a 2020 deal with the US Department of Justice, the company pleaded guilty to criminal charges in a deal that would waive most of its $ 8.3 billion in penalties and charges. confiscations as long as she struck a deal that would use the money to fight the opioid crisis. Members of the Sackler family have separately agreed to pay $ 225 million to settle federal civil claims. There is no indication that criminal charges could be brought against family members, although some activists are pressuring authorities to bring them.

Eight states and the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee, part of the Department of Justice, opposed the bankruptcy settlement and appealed after a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge accepted the agreement in September.

Their arguments influenced Justice McMahon. In her ruling, she said bankruptcy law does not give judges the power to agree to agreements that protect people who do not seek bankruptcy protection themselves if certain parties to the case are not. disagree.

The ruling “puts a fine point on the idea that there cannot be two justice systems in this country,” one for the rich and one for everyone, “said the state attorney general. Washington, Bob Ferguson, in an interview on Friday.

Purdue said he will appeal, but will also continue to try to find a settlement that all parties agree to.

McMahon included an appeal in his decision: “This opinion will not be the last word on the matter, and it should not be.” She said the issue of third-party discharges had loomed over bankruptcy law for decades, with federal circuit courts disagreeing on whether they could be granted.

The appeal will go to the New York-based United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The losing side is expected to ask the United States Supreme Court for a ruling.

Congress also considered legislation that would ban the type of protection afforded to members of the Sackler family, but the bill has stalled.

Representatives of the Sackler family have said in court, depositions and congressional hearings that they did nothing wrong and were not responsible for the opioid epidemic. They did not comment on Thursday’s decision.

The Justice Department, under different leadership than it was 13 months ago when Purdue pleaded guilty, has welcomed McMahon’s decision.

“The bankruptcy court did not have the power to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

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Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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