Untangling revenge from justice in the $6 bn opioid addiction settlement case in the US | Mint

Untangling revenge from justice in the $6 bn opioid addiction settlement case in the US

(FILES) Purdue Pharma headquarters stands in downtown Stamford, April 2, 2019 in Stamford, Connecticut. The US Supreme Court appeared divided on December 4, 2023 as it heard a challenge to Purdue Pharma's $6 billion opioids settlement immunizing the Sackler family that controlled the drugmaker from future litigation. (Photo by Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP) (AFP)
(FILES) Purdue Pharma headquarters stands in downtown Stamford, April 2, 2019 in Stamford, Connecticut. The US Supreme Court appeared divided on December 4, 2023 as it heard a challenge to Purdue Pharma's $6 billion opioids settlement immunizing the Sackler family that controlled the drugmaker from future litigation. (Photo by Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

  • If the settlement is allowed to proceed, it would see rich folks escaping responsibility for having caused widespread suffering, including death, with only their company going bankrupt paying damages

Here is a legal-ethical challenge worthy of King Solomon or King Vikramaditya, both known for their ability to find solutions to knotty problems. A settlement for opioid addiction in the US combines $6 billion in damages for individual victims, local governments, states, and tribes, with immunity for the Sackler family behind Purdue Pharma, which aggressively promoted of OxyContin, a prescription painkiller that figures majorly in the United States’ opioid addiction and overdose deaths crisis.

An arm of the Justice Department has challenged the settlement, as it lets the Sackler family off the hook, their finances intact, while their company goes bankrupt, paying off compensation/damages.  The US Supreme Court is hearing the case, with protesters camped outside the court, one group demanding immediate payout of compensation, and a second group insisting that the Sacklers should be penalized for the harm their company caused and they profited from.

If the settlement is allowed to proceed — it has already been upheld by a Federal appeals court — it would see rich folks escaping responsibility for having caused widespread suffering, including death, with only their company going bankrupt paying damages. If the settlement is blocked, it would take a fresh bout of protracted litigation to obtain fresh commitment to pay damages to the victims and affected communities.

Opioid overdose deaths exceed 100,000 in the US, one-sixth the number who die from cancer. Of course, OxyContin is just one of the many opioids causing addiction, debilitating lives and families. Synthetic opioids like Fentanyl play a big role and that is why it figures in high-level discussions between the US and China — Chinese companies export Fentanyl’s precursor chemicals to Mexico, where these are converted into Fentanyl, which, is then smuggled into the US and distributed widely.

Purdue Pharma is charged with promoting the use of OxyContin for pain relief, suppressing information about its potential for addiction. The drug made billions for the company, and the principal shareholders, the Sacklers, became members of high society, patronizing the arts and museums. Once opioid addiction grew into a major problem, the company got sued, and went into bankruptcy, offering $4 billion in compensation, which got bumped up later to $6 billion. The damages were conditional on the Sacklers getting immunity from further prosecution.

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide which should get precedence — justice, which would demand that the Sacklers receive a significant penalty, or relief for the victims of widespread addiction. Ideally, it should be both, which would mean that the court should strike down the settlement, so that another class action suit could be initiated to demand compensation, and to penalize the Sacklers for their personal culpability. This would take time, and many of the victims of addiction, who need relief now to make anything worthwhile out of their damaged lives, would be deprived of that benefit. The pursuit of just desserts for the Sacklers would entail injustice to thousands of victims, besides depriving state and local governments, as well as native American tribes, of funds that they need to tackle addiction and provide rehabilitation services.

Humanity has evolved away from the primitive conception of justice implicit in the norm, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, which equates, as it were, retribution with justice. Modern penal systems pursue justice, rather than avenging the crime in question. Yet, it is difficult to disentangle revenge from justice. It often so happens that white-collar crime, driven by the greed of, say, a few wolves of Wallstreet, engineers a financial crisis that, in turn, engenders an economic crisis, destroying jobs, driving people out of homes on which they can no longer afford mortgage payments, and driving some of those affected to substance abuse. If some of these desperate individuals commit a theft, they would be sent to prison, while those culpable for the original, greed-driven wrongdoing at the beginning of this sordid chain of causation would get away with some fines. Clearly, the modern penal system does not always deliver justice.

How could the US Supreme Court possibly deliver justice to both the Sacklers and the victims of opioid addiction? Unaided, it would be difficult. Yet, there is a way out. Someone — the government, a non-profit or a venture capitalist — could put up the compensation money for immediate disbursal to those affected, subject to the following conditions:

one, the settlement that gives the Sacklers immunity in return for compensation would be set aside;

two, fresh litigation would be initiated against the Sacklers both to penalize them and to extract compensation; and,

three, the compensation already paid out would be recovered, along with expenses (including a return on the capital deployed, if a venture capitalist plays the white knight), from damages collected from Purdue/successor company and the Sacklers.

The courts would not be able to suggest such constructive solutions, unlike kings of yore, their job being limited to adjudicating the legality of what is placed before them (Article 142 of India’s Constitution puts the Supreme Court of India in a league of its own, endowing it with the power to issue any directive to do complete justice, if the law does not offer a remedy — but that is a different story). But the US Supreme Court would be able to put its seal of approval on a proposal of the kind described above, if it were to be placed before it.

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