Dan Harper lost his 26-year-old daughter to an opioid overdose in 2018, and he has been working hard since then to combat the relentlessly stubborn opioid epidemic, which last year killed nearly 110,000 people in this country — nearly twice the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
So, when Harper heard this week that the US Supreme Court had ordered a pause to a legal settlement with Purdue Pharma, the embattled manufacturer of the controversial opioid OxyContin, his long-simmering frustration bubbled up once again.
“Being somebody who lost someone, it’s been a painfully slow experience watching this,” said Harper, who lives in South Deerfield. “Knowing that the barn’s on fire, there are buckets ready to be put out, but nobody’s moving.”
The pause will allow the Supreme Court to assess the settlement, approved by an appellate court, that shields the billionaire Sackler family, which once controlled Purdue Pharma, from additional civil lawsuits and places a $6 billion ceiling on their personal liability.
Also at issue is Purdue’s use of bankruptcy court to seek protection from a host of plaintiffs, many of whom lost family members who had become dependent on OxyContin, a pain reliever cited as a key contributor to the long-running opioid crisis.
Although companies routinely revert to bankruptcy proceedings to limit their losses, critics of the agreement argue that the Sacklers deserve no such protection and are not in financial distress, even after offering billions of dollars to settle the claims.
Under the settlement, the Sacklers would receive immunity from civil legal proceedings.
The Supreme Court order is expected to delay payments to thousands of plaintiffs and to groups and government agencies battling the opioid epidemic. Even though the Sacklers might face new legal exposure as a result of the Supreme Court order, Harper and others say the funding is needed quickly and urgently.
“I like the fact that the Sacklers will potentially be out in the open. The Sacklers siphoned off billions and billions of dollars before bankrputcy” to protect the family’s fortune, Harper said. “It was, ‘Here’s $6 billion, and we’ll have immunity.’ That’s pennies for pounds.”
However, he added, “I think we need settlement money now and accountability later.”
Joanne Peterson, founder and executive director of Learn to Cope, a national recovery and support network with roots in Massachusetts, said she continues to be outraged by the settlement’s protections for the Sackler family.
“I feel they never should have been allowed to file for bankruptcy,” Peterson said. “I would like to see them be sued personally and get jail time, but that’s never going to happen.”
Peterson testified at the 2007 sentencing of three Purdue Pharma executives who pleaded guilty in a federal trial to misleading and defrauding physicians and consumers about the addictive dangers of OxyContin.
“The Sacklers, they changed this country, they really did. We’ve lost more people to this [epidemic] than any war,” said Peterson, whose niece died from an opioid overdose. “They just walk away richer than ever, no jail time, no responsibility for it.”
Still, Peterson said, funding to mitigate the crisis is always in demand, and further delays will have real-time, negative effects on the front lines of the fight.
“All kinds of plans are being made, and the families always get the short end of the stick,” Peterson said. The number of overdose deaths “goes go up every year. It never seems to go down. We have a lot of work we need to be doing.”
Peterson serves on a 20-member state board that offers advice on expanding services for people struggling with drug dependence, a condition called opioid use disorder. Peterson said she is unsure how much money Massachusetts would receive under the current settlement, but that every dollar counts.
“The damage they did can never be compensated by money, but the money could help,” Peterson said of the Sacklers. “It won’t get any of the lives back, though.”
The court’s decision followed the Justice Department’s objection to the Sacker family’s protections.
John Rosenthal, who cofounded the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, in which participating police steer drug users into treatment instead of jail, said he agrees with the Justice Department.
“The Sacklers are using bankruptcy court and blood money they made fraudulently marketing and knowingly misrepresenting how addictive their OxyContin pain medication is to get away with murder,” said Rosenthal, who also serves with Peterson on the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund Advisory Council.
“Families of victims and states like ours should always have keys to the courthouse in order to hold owners of corrupt companies accountable,” Rosenthal said.
For Harper, the South Deerfield man who lost his daughter to an overdose, a final settlement could help fund production of a low-cost device, called Eliza’s Watch, that sounds an alarm after its wearer has been motionless for 90 seconds.
The device, which Harper named for his late daughter, already has a prototype and could save countless overdose victims who die alone, he said.
Eliza died on the family’s living-room couch, within sound of others who might have been able to save her, he recalled.
“As much as I want to see the Sacklers be held accountable, I think it’s more important to help people with a ‘hair on fire’ problem,” Harper said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.