The speed with which the court scheduled the case may reflect its awareness of the opioid problem. But legal experts said its ruling would be unlikely to dwell on the public health crisis. The court, they said, will focus narrowly on the liability shield, an increasingly popular, though contentious, bankruptcy tactic.
“I’m sure, though, that even if the opioid crisis doesn’t show up anywhere in the opinion, the court has to be bearing in mind that cities, states and individuals have been desperately waiting for these funds. They need to know the answer to this question so they can figure out what to do next,” said Adam Zimmerman, who teaches mass tort law at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.
Though numerous pharmaceutical companies have been sued for their roles in the opioid epidemic, the Sacklers and Purdue loom large in the story of the complex, decades-old crisis. Their signature drug, OxyContin, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late 1995, became a game changer in a new market hungry for prescription painkillers. To the medical establishment that was then beginning to recognize pain as a “fifth vital sign,” long-acting OxyContin looked like a wondrous medication.
Purdue became known for lavish sales conferences, at which pain medicine physicians, trained and hired by the company, would falsely claim that the risk of addiction to OxyContin was extremely low. By 2007, Purdue and three of its top executives had paid fines of $634.5 million and pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s potential for abuse.
The steep fines did little to deter Purdue from continuing to aggressively market OxyContin.
Eventually, attention became focused on the Sacklers themselves, some of whom served as Purdue board members and made large charitable donations to medical schools and museums. In exchange, the institutions renamed buildings after the Sacklers. But as the family saga became featured in books, television series and documentaries and their notoriety grew, most institutions stripped the Sackler name from their properties and dissociated themselves from Purdue’s owners.