Parents of overdose victims protest OxyContin maker at court hearing
Like so many who became addicted to painkillers and later overdosed and died, Cheryl Juaire’s son was a good kid, a jokester and a people person, his mother says.
Corey J. Merrill started on OxyContin, the potent opioid made by Purdue Pharma. When addiction took hold, he turned to heroin, his mother said. He died in 2011 at age 23.
Juaire, of Marlborough, was among dozens of parents who have lost children to addiction who protested outside Suffolk Superior Court on Friday as lawyers for Purdue argued to keep concealed many pages of a lawsuit against the company brought by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. Purdue is accused of helping to spawn the opioid epidemic by aggressively marketing its powerful painkiller, OxyContin.
“They’re criminals who did this all for greed and profit,” Juaire said.
The parents stood in the cold for hours, clutching posters and photographs of their children. Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with a son or daughter’s smiling face. They said they want Purdue and its executives held accountable for their critical role in the opioid crisis.
“I believe the Sackler family is the reason why we have this opioid epidemic,” said Tony LaGreca of Duxbury, referring to the family that controls Purdue. “They’ve made billions of dollars killing our kids.”
LaGreca said his son, Matthew, became addicted to opioids after a football injury resulted in a prescription for 100 pills of oxycodone. He died from an overdose years later, in 2014.
Carol Lorento of Boston said Purdue deserves blame for irresponsible marketing — and “lies, greed, and poor judgment” — that led to the opioid crisis. Her son, Derek, received a prescription for OxyContin after an arm fracture in high school and later used heroin. He died in 2016.
Now, Lorento is responsible for raising her 6-year-old grandson. “He knows that his dada’s in heaven,” she said.
Officials at Purdue, which is based in Stamford, Conn., said in a statement Friday that the company is working on several efforts to combat drug abuse and addiction, including initiatives to teach teenagers about the dangers of opioids.
“We share the protesters’ concern about the opioid crisis, and respect their right to peacefully express themselves,” spokesman Bob Josephson said. “Purdue is committed to working collaboratively with those affected by this public health crisis on meaningful solutions to help stem the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths.”
The state Department of Public Health said there were 1,518 opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts in the first nine months of 2018. That figure includes both confirmed and estimated deaths.
Attorney General Maura Healey has accused Purdue of misleading doctors and patients about the addiction and overdose risks of its medications in a lawsuit originally filed in June. The suit also named current and former Purdue executives and members of the Sackler family, which controls the privately held Purdue, as defendants.
An updated, 300-plus-page complaint from Healey’s office filed last week contained newly public portions that showed Purdue executives and the Sacklers demanding greater sales of their medications despite the risks. The complaint alleges the company pressured salespeople to push physicians to prescribe higher doses of their drugs for longer periods of time to more patients.
Much of the document remains redacted, however, so a group of media organizations — including The Boston Globe, STAT, WBUR, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times — filed a motion to release the full document.
“Every day that goes by where this document is substantially under seal is a day that the public does not have access to newsworthy and important information,” Jeffrey J. Pyle, a lawyer for the media organizations, argued Friday before Judge Janet L. Sanders.
Purdue lawyers, in a motion, have said “there is simply no urgent or compelling need to justify the media consortium’s demand to immediately receive confidential information,” arguing that releasing the full document would undermine the court processes with which the company is cooperating. Purdue faces several lawsuits in other states.
Timothy C. Blank, a lawyer for Purdue, said Friday that the company is also concerned about business trade secrets being made public.
The judge said she would rule on the redacted documents by early next week.
Healey sat in the courtroom throughout the two-hour hearing. Speaking with reporters afterward, she described it as “a good development” in the case.
“These families have had to endure so much in terms of stigma,” Healey said. “It is really rich for this corporate defendant and corporate officers and directors to come forward and, under the guise of fear of embarrassment or shame about their alleged misconduct, to claim that this information shouldn’t come to light.”
“The public deserves to know,” she said.
On her way into the courthouse, Healey hugged some of the teary-eyed mothers who had gathered outside in protest. “Our children need you!” one woman exclaimed.
Lynn Wencus, bundled in a puffy purple coat, wore a sandwich board of smiling faces — all young adults who died from overdoses — and she held a separate photo of her son, Jeff, who died in 2017.
“It’s very important that we show their faces and say their names to remember them,” said Wencus, of Wrentham. “I pray my son’s death won’t be in vain.”