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Supreme Court split on whether the Sackler family can be sued over opioid crisis

WASHINGTON − The Supreme Court on Monday appeared divided over whether the Sackler family, which made its fortune selling a drug that fueled the nation's opioid epidemic, could be shielded from civil lawsuits by paying $6 billion to victims and drug treatment programs as part of a bankruptcy settlement with the company it once ran.

The high court is being asked to decide a question related to bankruptcy law, but just below the surface is a wrenching debate over how much to punish the Sacklers for their role in the crisis -- and whether blowing up the current settlement might jeopardize any payout for tens of thousands of victims and their families.

The vast majority of victims support the settlement with Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin and marketed the drug as less addictive than other opioids. But the Justice Department stepped into the case to question whether courts can absolve the Sackler family from future lawsuits − a practice that has been used in major bankruptcies dealing with harms caused by asbestos and silicone breast implants.

Families: These two moms lost sons to opioids. Now they’re on opposite sides at the Supreme Court.

"The opioids victims and their families overwhelmingly approve of this plan because they think it will ensure prompt payment," Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.

Justice Elena Kagan noted the "huge, huge, huge majority of claimants who have decided that if this provision goes under, they're going to end up with nothing" and questioned why the federal government's position would, hypothetically, allow "one nutcase holdout" to hold up a settlement agreed to most victims.

But 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.

"We don't normally say that a non-consenting party can have its claim...eliminated in this fashion without consent" or court review, Gorsuch said. "This would defy what we do" in other contexts, he said, and would "raise serious due process concerns."

Christine Gagnon of Southington, Conn., protests with other family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses at Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 17, 2018.
Christine Gagnon of Southington, Conn., protests with other family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses at Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 17, 2018.

After nearly two hours of arguments it was not clear which way the justices were leaning.

Supporters say it's uncertain whether a better deal could ever be reached with Purdue. The bankruptcy fight has already dragged on for years, allowing the Sacklers to hold on to the billions they have promised – money governments will use to pay for addiction treatment programs. Pratik Shah, a lawyer for some of those victims, warned that they may not receive any money if the Supreme Court sinks the agreement.

But opponents have questioned the true scope of support for the settlement, noting it's impossible to count future victims, for instance. A 13-year-old who lost her parents to opioids, for example, might not be able to bring a claim against the Sacklers today. Under the agreement, she would be barred from doing so forever. They also note that the Sacklers put a "final offer" on the table once before and then wound up agreeing to a higher payout later.

The case is Harrington v. Purdue Pharma. The Supreme Court is expected to decide it next year.

OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., Feb. 19, 2013. The Biden administration is moving to require patients to see a doctor in person before getting drugs to treat attention deficit disorders or addictive painkillers, toughening access to the medications against the backdrop of a deepening opioid crisis. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court split over settlement for opioid-maker Purdue Pharma