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For the first time, victims of the opioid crisis formally confront the Sackler family

MANHATTAN, NY - MARCH 10, 2022: Ryan Hampton, 41, poses for a portrait in the lobby of the Akin Gump law firm offices on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Manhattan, New York. Family members and victims of the opioid crisis gave statements to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court with the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma LP, present on Thursday. Mr. Hampton is a survivor of opioid addiction and recovery advocate. CREDIT: Desiree Rios for NPR
Family members exchange photographs of their lost loved ones in the lobby of the Akin Gump law firm offices on Thursday in Manhattan, NY. The family members and victims gave statements to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court with the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma LP, present on Thursday.

Updated March 10, 2022 at 4:51 PM ET

For the first time during the long legal reckoning over the opioid crisis, members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma heard directly from people who say their company's main product, Oxycontin, wrecked their lives.

David Sackler, Richard Sackler and Theresa Sackler listened and watched during the roughly two-hour long hearing as people described surviving addiction and spoke of losing loved ones to the epidemic.

The Sacklers spoke briefly to confirm their presence, but did not respond to the testimony.

"You created so much loss for so many people," said Kay Scarpone, whose son Joe Scarpone, a retired Marine, died of an opioid overdose.

"I'm not sure how you live every day. I hope you ask for God's forgiveness for your actions. May God have mercy on your souls," Scarpone said.

Many of the people who testified held up photographs of dead loved ones.

"As a physician and a mother, I have been consumed with grief," said Dr. Kimberly Blake, whose son Sean died of an opioid overdose.

"In 2020, I was hospitalized with depression because I couldn't face another Mother's Day without him," she said.

Roughly 500,000 people in the U.S. have died from opioid overdoses since the opioid crisis began in 1999, including prescription painkillers and street drugs such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virtual hearing was held in federal bankruptcy court at the request of the mediator who hashed out a deal with members of the Sackler family, who are expected to pay roughly $6 billion in exchange for immunity from future opioid lawsuits.

Judge Robert Drain, who presided over the hearing from his court room in White Plains, N.Y., noted that the Sacklers agreed voluntarily to take part.

This was the first and only formal opportunity during Purdue Pharma's lengthy bankruptcy proceeding for victims to address the company's owners directly.

Drain cautioned this wasn't an evidentiary hearing where personal statements should be taken as fact. He also urged those taking part to avoid creating a "denunciation rally."

But at times, the statements directed at members of the Sackler family were searing.

"I am not a vindictive person, but what you did is criminal," said Stephanie Lubinski, who lost her husband to an overdose. "You made an insane amount of money off our family, more money than you could ever spend."

Holding up her husband's photograph, she said, "You will know his name, Troy Alan Lubinksi."

The Sacklers do not respond, and offer no apology

David and Theresa Sackler could be seen on-screen during the Zoom session, showing no visible emotion or expression. Richard Sackler was not in view.

Drain has signaled that he expects to approve this bankruptcy deal, after nine states dropped their opposition.

If that happens, the Sacklers will emerge with a clean legal slate, achieving what their attorneys have described as "global peace" from any liability for the opioid crisis.

In the past, the Sackler family has repeatedly voiced "regret" about the impact of Oxycontin, but they have not apologized.

Many of those who survived addiction or lost loved ones voiced rage that members of the Sackler family showed no contrition.

Family members who served on the company's board and who played a significant role in management decisions have long maintained they did nothing wrong, according to internal Purdue Pharma documents.

The company itself has pleaded guilty to federal crimes twice for its opioid marketing schemes, first in 2007 and again in 2020.

Documents revealed during years of litigation — and as part of a lengthy bankruptcy proceeding for Purdue Pharma — show some members of the Sackler family pushed aggressively to boost prescription opioid sales.

Even as addiction rates and overdoses surged nationwide, the Sacklers employed a consulting firm that promised to help Purdue Pharma "turbocharge" Oxycontin sales.

The Sacklers have denied wrongdoing and faced public backlash

Purdue Pharma's story isn't unique. Many of the largest corporations in the U.S. got involved in the opioid business and have paid large sums to settle a wave of lawsuits linked to the crisis.

Late last month, four Fortune 50 companies — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson — agreed to a deal worth roughly $26 billion.

But while executives at those firms have largely remained behind the scenes, the Sacklers have faced an intense personal backlash.

Best-selling books, a TV mini-series, and high-profile magazine articles have portrayed some members of the family as major players in pushing opioid sales.

"I want you to know that the things you have done — and their deadly consequences—have been seen," addiction activist Ryan Hampton said at the hearing. He survived opioid addiction, which he says began with a prescription for Oxycontin.

Addressing his remarks directly to Richard Sackler, Hampton said, "Your actions will never be forgotten. The world sees you for what you really are."

The family, once famous for its philanthropic donations, has seen its name stripped from major arts, medical and education institutions.

In public statements and in testimony before Congress in 2020, the Sacklers have described that narrative as inaccurate and unfair.

"The family and the board acted legally and ethically," David Sackler testified before a House panel.

Many of the family members and addiction survivors who spoke on Thursday also directed comments at Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging him to open a criminal probe into the Sacklers' alleged role in the opioid crisis.

However, the family has never faced criminal charges, and paid $225 million to resolve the federal government's civil claims against the family. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :


For the first time today, victims of the opioid epidemic spoke directly to members of the Sackler family. The Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, a prescription pain medication that helped fuel the opioid crisis. Members of the Sackler family listened to heart-wrenching testimony about children lost to fatal overdoses and years lost to addiction.

NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann covered today's court hearing and joins us now. Hi, Brian.


MCCAMMON: So tell us how things unfolded today.

MANN: Yeah. This was really a watershed moment in the legal and, I guess you'd have to say, moral reckoning over this opioid crisis, which has killed half a million people in the U.S. This was the first and really only chance in this entire process for people who say their lives were destroyed by OxyContin to speak directly to the Sacklers. Some members of the family pushed aggressively over the years to boost opioid sales that earned them billions of dollars.

This hearing unfolded on Zoom, with people appearing one by one on screen, often holding up photographs of their dead loved ones. Three of the Sacklers volunteered to be present, and the rules then required them to listen and watch as people shared their grief.

Dede Yoder was one of those who spoke. She described getting the call when her son, Chris, died of an overdose at age 21.

DEDE YODER: There is no easy way to say this, but your son is deceased. And so now I feel like I have a hole in my heart that will never go away.

MANN: And I should say, Sarah, we weren't allowed to record the actual court hearing today, so these are voices of people who agreed to speak to NPR after it ended.

MCCAMMON: It all sounds absolutely heartbreaking, Brian. How did the Sacklers respond to what they heard?

MANN: Well, this is fascinating. They didn't. David and Theresa Sackler were visible on the screen the whole time. They showed no emotion through the testimony, which, again, was often raw and grief-stricken. Richard Sackler was not visible on screen. The Sacklers have said throughout that they did nothing wrong ethically or legally, though their company, Purdue Pharma, has pleaded guilty twice to federal crimes linked to opioid marketing and sales.

MCCAMMON: And what are people saying about the significance of this moment, about having a chance to speak directly to the Sackler family?

MANN: Yeah. This was clearly a powerful day for people - hard and exhausting but important. Family members who lost loved ones told me it was vital that they feel heard by the Sacklers. Jill Cichowicz, whose twin brother died after an opioid overdose, spoke with me after the hearing.

JILL CICHOWICZ: There was a little more closure, looking the Sacklers in the eyes - they have deemed some of us as, you know, addicts, and it was their fault - for them to see that we are a nice, normal family that is truly heartbroken.

MANN: And I also spoke with Tiffinee Scott who lost her daughter Tiarra to an OxyContin overdose. She said it was also powerful to share this moment with other families, other victims of this epidemic.

TIFFINEE SCOTT: Families coming together to address the Sacklers for one - once in a lifetime. That's where the power came in. They were required to sit and listen.

MANN: Now, a lot of people did ask the Sacklers for an apology today - really demanded it at times, but that did not happen. Again, the Sacklers deny any wrongdoing.

MCCAMMON: And now that people have had their chance to speak, what happens next?

MANN: Yeah. So Judge Robert Drain is expected to approve a settlement, Sarah, where the Sacklers will pay roughly $6 billion from their private fortunes - a lot of that money going to fund drug treatment programs. In return, the Sacklers will receive immunity from all future opioid lawsuits.

One thing people did tell me today is they think moments like this have changed the narrative about the Sacklers. They were once respected as one of America's leading philanthropic families. Now their names are being taken down from museums and buildings and colleges. People who I spoke to today say they do feel vindicated by that and over, you know, this cathartic moment that we heard in today's hearing.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Brian Mann covers addiction. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.