Facing Purdue owners brings pain, closure for opioid victims
Kara Trainor composed herself, looked into a camera and began to speak to the drugmakers she holds responsible for two decades of suffering that has extended from her to a son born dependent on opioids.
Three members of the family that owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma watched silently or listened to the virtual court hearing as Trainor described giving birth to a baby who rapidly plunged into withdrawal — “the screaming will haunt you for the rest of your life” — and what it’s been like to raise him. At 11, he still uses a sippy cup and diapers.
Trainor and others who have suffered from or lost relatives to opioid addiction had waited years for this moment: a direct, if virtual, confrontation with members of the Sackler family in court over the consequences of the painkiller that made them a fortune while helping fuel a deadly drug epidemic. The opportunity finally came for about two dozen victims or their relatives at an extraordinary bankruptcy court hearing Thursday.
Some emerged exhausted, others angry, others relieved, and all unsure whether the Sacklers, who weren’t allowed to respond during the session, had been moved. Still, several people who gave statements said they valued being able to speak for their lost loved ones and show solidarity, and that they had gotten a grain of resolution.
“I can feel, as a mother, that my son was seen and heard by the family,” said Trainor, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who got an OxyContin prescription at 21 and soon became addicted. She’s now 40, in recovery and working with others who struggle with drug abuse.
“It’s going to be part of my healing and part of a closure of 20 years,” she said, “finally being able to be heard.”
The hearing, highly unusual for U.S. Bankruptcy Court, was suggested by a mediator who helped broker a potential settlement of thousands of lawsuits against Purdue. If it wins final approval, the deal will generate $10 billion or more to fight addiction and overdoses, with the Sacklers chipping in as much as $6 billion in exchange for protection from civil lawsuits. Up to 149,000 people who have struggled with addiction or who lost loved ones to it are due to split $750 million under the settlement.
One after another, victims logged in from Hawaii to New Hampshire on Thursday with accounts of surgeries and illnesses that led to OxyContin prescriptions, followed by dependency, despair, rounds of drug-abuse treatment, personal and financial ruin and, all too often, death by overdose or suicide.
Vitaly Pinkusov described waking up to find his 32-year-old wife’s body cold in their bed. Kristy Nelson played a recording of her frantic 911 call reporting that her son was unresponsive. Stephanie Lubinski recounted how her husband went into their basement and shot himself in the chest.
Former Purdue president and board chairman Richard Sackler listened by phone, a sore point for some victims who found it disrespectful that he didn’t face them. His son, David Sackler, and another family member, Theresa Sackler, appeared on camera, appearing attentive but showing little reaction.
“They just sat there, alone but stone-faced, and never changed their expression, never,” a frustrated Lubinski of Blaine, Minnesota, said afterward.
The Sacklers have never unequivocally apologized. They released a statement last week saying they had acted lawfully but “regret” that OxyContin “unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities.”
OxyContin, a pioneering extended-release prescription painkiller, hit the market in 1996, while Purdue and other drug companies funded efforts to suggest that prescribers consider opioids for a wider range of pain conditions than previously thought appropriate. Purdue asserted that far fewer than 1% of people prescribed opioids developed addictions, though there weren’t rigorous studies to support the claim.
Waves of fatal opioid overdoses followed, from prescription drugs, heroin, and most recently fentanyl and similar drugs. Purdue documents made public in lawsuits appear to show family members at times downplaying the crisis.
Tiffinee Scott asked the Sacklers whether they had ever revived one of their children from an overdose, as she did for her daughter before finally losing her to an overdose at age 28. Tiarra Renee Brown-Lewis had been prescribed OxyContin for sickle cell disease pain, the mother said.
“Shame on you,” she told the Sacklers, though she said later that she hadn’t expected a reaction from people she sees as heartless. To her, the point of the session was the impact of the families’ unity and their joint message.
“For once, we felt to have a sense of power over privilege, as it pertains to the Sacklers,” she said.
After her 21-year-old son, Chris Yoder, died from an overdose, Dede Yoder used to swear at the Sacklers as she drove by Purdue’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, near her Norwalk home. She’s felt vindicated by the bankruptcy case and public scrutiny of the Sacklers.
“Being part of this court record is very important, and my son’s story being part of the record,” she said after making her statement during the hearing.
Ryan Hampton of Las Vegas found “a level of catharsis” in testifying Thursday about the years of addiction, overdoses and periods of homelessness he endured after a knee injury. But it bothered him that victims and their relatives were delivering a message that, in his view, should come from authorities.
Like several of those who testified, he wants the Sacklers to be criminally charged. There’s no sign that will happen, although seven U.S. senators last month asked the Department of Justice to consider it. Purdue Pharma, meanwhile, has twice pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Cheryl Juaire, meanwhile, is looking ahead to the potential for money to flow to addiction treatment programs and “start to heal this country.” Juaire, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, lost two adult sons, Corey Merrill and Sean Merrill, who died just last June.
Jill Cichowicz, who lost her twin brother, Scott Zebrowski, hopes that Thursday’s uncommonly personal hearing “sets the tone for future companies, and they understand the ramifications of their actions.”
For a long time, she had thought about what she might say to the Sacklers if she ever got the chance.
“And then, when you’re actually in the room facing them, eye-to-eye, you’re not as angry. You’re hurt,” said Cichowicz, of Richmond, Virginia. “It was a sense of closure, but in the same sense, I’m still suffering, being hurt by their actions.”
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.