Sackler Family Member Apologizes for Pain OxyContin Caused

A $10 billion deal that would include sweeping legal releases to members of the Sackler family that own Purdue Pharma LP hovered over the company’s bankruptcy trial on Thursday as a former board member apologized for the drugmaker’s role in the U.S. opioid crisis

Mortimer Sackler, son of the late Purdue co-owner of the same name, fielded lawyers’ questions by video conference in a remote trial that will determine whether the proposed settlement is approved. As part of the pact, the family is putting up about $4.3 billion to resolve thousands of opioid claims by cities, states and counties that accuse Purdue of duping doctors and patients about the addictive properties of its OxyContin painkiller.

“We’re sorry that a medicine we put out to relieve pain caused pain to families” of opioid victims, Sackler told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain in New York on Thursday, likely the final day of witness testimony in the trial. Under questioning by lawyers for Purdue creditors that oppose the settlement, including attorneys general from a number of states, Sackler apologized for the many addictions and overdoses that opioids such as OxyContin have caused.

“It’s a truly horrible problem the country is facing,” he said. Still, he testified to “always trying to do the right thing” in overseeing sales of the painkiller.

Sharp Contrast

At the end of the hearing the judge said he was presented with “very difficult” choices.

“This is, I believe, the most complex case certainly I have ever presided over,” Drain said.  

Sackler’s testimony contrasted sharply in tone with that of former Purdue president Richard Sackler, his cousin, who on Wednesday staunchly defended his family’s handling of OxyContin and said he believed neither the company nor the family is responsible for the opioid crisis. 

Mortimer Sackler, a director of Purdue for about three decades, said Thursday the drugmaker’s board long had to strike a balance between ensuring patients in severe pain could access the “incredible medicines” it offered while working to minimize abuse of opioid products. Pushing an abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin and thereby taking market share from more easily abused opioids would be a “societal good,” he said.

The trial has now seen rare public appearances from four members of the Sackler family. In addition to Mortimer and Richard, David Sackler testified on Tuesday. Kathe Sackler, Mortimer’s sister, who also served on Purdue’s board for about 30 years, took the stand Thursday afternoon. 

Clear Answers

“It was important to us that the market share of abuse-deterrent opioids grew,” Mortimer Sackler said. In 2010, Connecticut-based Purdue launched a version of OxyContin that is harder to crush. “We were always trying to do the right thing, the right balance,” he said. 

It was “shocking and hugely disappointing” to learn that the company had pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2020, he told the court, adding that Purdue’s management frequently told the board it was complying with laws and regulations. He left the board before Purdue’s 2019 bankruptcy filing. 

Unlike Richard, the former Purdue director said he agreed with the government’s claims in the company’s most recent guilty plea over OxyContin sales and marketing. Purdue pleaded guilty to three felonies, including conspiring to violate federal kickback statutes by paying sham speaker fees to doctors who ramped up OxyContin prescriptions.

Sackler gave sometimes lengthy but clear answers to questions from Maryland Assistant Attorney General Brian Edmunds, whose state opposes the bankruptcy plan. On Thursday he was asked a question similar to one Richard got Wednesday about how many people in the U.S. had died from OxyContin misuse. 

“I believe the number I’ve read in the headlines is 500,000, if you’re including heroin, fentanyl and all other opioids,” he said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published such a figure.

Eight Family Groups

Sackler said Thursday that about eight different groups of family members, some not involved with Purdue, are coming together to contribute to the $4.3 billion fund.

“My share of the settlement agreement, which is one-eighth, is substantially larger than my personal net worth,” he testified. Some of the money for his contributions will come from investment trusts set up for himself or his children, he told the judge.

Sackler, however, joined fellow family members in saying he wouldn’t have signed on to the settlement plan without the extensive legal releases granted to a wide range of people and entities. Those releases have drawn the ire of dissenting states, which say they extinguish too many claims for too little money.

Sackler told Drain the family could have chosen to fight thousands of opioid suits “for decades” and spent the money on lawyers rather than have it go to opioid victims. He said he felt a responsibility to address some of the harm OxyContin has caused.

“I believe that if you are in a position to help, you have a responsibility to help,” he said.

No ‘Legal Responsibility’

In her testimony on Thursday, Kathe Sackler struck an apologetic note at times, while maintaining that neither she nor Purdue is solely responsible for the opioid crisis. She said opioids are the best means of treating severe pain and that they are still approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Like her brother she said the family wants to “bring closure to the situation” and put dollars to work fighting the crisis rather than lawsuits. 

“I don’t believe that I have legal responsibility, but I deeply feel distressed and recognize a moral responsibility that I do have and that we all have,” she said. “You can’t boil it down to one simple solution and point your finger at one company that caused the opioid crisis.” 

She added that she was “deeply, deeply sorry for any individual person who has suffered from addiction and I am tragically sorry for any loss of life,” and said, “It is absolutely disturbing that the company, Purdue, that was intended to develop this product to relieve suffering has become part of this crisis.”

Late in her testimony, a lawyer for an arm of the U.S. Justice Department pressed her on the scope of legal releases members of her family would receive under Purdue’s proposed settlement plan. She conceded that the releases are broad -- she said she didn’t know how many people they would apply to, other than “a lot” -- but said her lawyers have advised her that the breadth is necessary to achieve the family’s goals.

As the hearing wrapped up the judge encouraged lawyers for Purdue and the family to work on issues over the releases highlighted by the Justice Department. And he urged everyone to read some of the many letters submitted to his chambers during the case, saying some “speak eloquently and bravely” about the impact of Purdue’s products.

The case is Purdue Pharma LP, 19-23649, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (White Plains).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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