In a dramatic session on Monday, the Supreme Court found itself sharply divided over whether to hold the Sackler family accountable for their alleged role in the devastating opioid crisis. The Sacklers, who amassed their fortune from the sale of a drug that fueled the nationwide opioid epidemic, are now under intense scrutiny as the court deliberates whether they should be shielded from civil lawsuits. This high-stakes legal battle is centered around a proposed $6 billion payout to victims and drug treatment programs as part of a bankruptcy settlement with Purdue Pharma, the company once under their control.
Behind the facade of a seemingly straightforward bankruptcy law question, a contentious debate is unfolding on the appropriate punishment for the Sacklers and the broader issue of holding Big Pharma accountable for its actions. Critics argue that the pharmaceutical industry has historically enjoyed protection from the Supreme Court, allowing them to escape accountability for alleged corruption and malpractice.
The majority of victims support the proposed settlement with Purdue Pharma, known for manufacturing the highly addictive OxyContin and misleadingly marketing it as less habit-forming than other opioids. However, the Justice Department has stepped in, challenging the practice of absolving the Sackler family from potential future lawsuits—a move that raises questions about the extent of protection granted to powerful pharmaceutical players.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh highlighted the overwhelming support for the settlement among victims, emphasizing their belief that it would ensure swift compensation. Justice Elena Kagan echoed this sentiment, pointing to the risk that challenging the settlement could leave many victims with nothing.
On the flip side, Justice Neil Gorsuch leaned into an attorney for Purdue about the fact that the settlements foreclose victims’ ability to bring future civil lawsuits against the Sacklers, such as for fraud, without their consent.
As the courtroom drama unfolded over nearly two intense hours of arguments, the direction in which the justices are leaning remains unclear. Supporters argue that securing a better deal with Purdue is uncertain, and the protracted legal battle has allowed the Sacklers to retain the promised billions, intended to fund government-backed addiction treatment programs. Critics, however, cast doubt on the settlement’s true level of support, underscoring the industry’s historical immunity from scrutiny and pointing out the lasting impact on future victims.
The case, officially titled Harrington v. Purdue Pharma, is set to be a landmark decision. It marks a critical moment in the ongoing battle to ensure accountability in an industry that has faced accusations of corruption and exploitation with seemingly little consequence.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide it next year.