OxyContin victims fight for their part in Purdue bankruptcy case | Opioid crisis
STephanie and Troy Lubinski met when they were teenagers and they were married for three decades. Troy was big-hearted, kind, the best fisherman around, a devoted father who took care of the children during the day after long night shifts as a firefighter.
But he had back pain that started when he worked in construction and got worse over the years. His doctor prescribed him OxyContin, and that was the beginning of the end.
“Everything went downhill,” Stephanie said.
Troy endured a decades-long battle with opioid use disorder. The family lost everything – their home, possessions, even a son’s football championship rings – as Troy’s condition spiraled out of control.
Stephanie is one of more than 138,000 plaintiffs alleging the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, contributed to the ongoing opioid epidemic. The Sacklers deny wrongdoing.
Facing around 3,000 lawsuits, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but not before members of the Sackler family took more than $10 billion from the company over a decade.
This case, brought by states and opioid victims, is currently being settled in bankruptcy court.
But this is proving difficult to resolve. A previous agreement had been blocked in December. After intense negotiations, the Sackler family is now offering $6 billion in settlement talks, paid over several years.
However, the family are insisting on civil liability protection, which would essentially mean they could never be sued in civil court for opioids again – an unusual step that caused the latest deal to fall through.
Such measures are typically used in bankruptcy courts to help restructure a business, but they are not used to protect owners from liability when they do not declare bankruptcy themselves, as in this case.
“That’s clearly the sticking point,” said Regina LaBelle, former acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and current director of the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute of Medicine. Georgetown University, “to be able to sue the Sacklers personally in the future.
While most parties have agreed to these terms, some still hold. A federal bankruptcy judge, Shelley Chapman, who is negotiating the settlement, has asked for an extension until the end of the month. A stay on other claims during settlement negotiations is due to expire in early March.
Previously, the Sacklers had offered $4.55 billion, but eight states and the District of Columbia objected to that amount.
The family has now added almost a billion dollars, as well as proceeds from the sale of international pharmaceutical companies.
The extra funds would not go to victims, like Stephanie Lubinski, but to governments for law enforcement and health care costs associated with opioids. Victims are expected to receive a total of $750 million, or about $5,000 each.
More than 500,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the past two decades.
“None of these people who have lost their lives or been affected by addiction, no amount of money will compensate them. No amount of money,” LaBelle said.
“Absolutely not enough – the $750 million is a joke,” said Ryan Hampton, the former co-chairman of the creditors’ committee representing victims in the settlement, who is himself recovering. “It should have been double that, at a minimum.”
But if an agreement is not reached, it seems unlikely that these many victims will be able to form a new settlement before more claims are made. Those whose lives have been devastated by opioids “stand to lose the most in these negotiations if they fall apart,” he said.
“There is going to be a settlement or some kind of civil action that the Sacklers are going to have to bring. The underlying factor here is whether the victims are going to receive some sort of direct compensation from this settlement.
If that settlement dissolves, other states could bring their own claims, wiping out the victims altogether, he said.
“It’s possible for one state to get the whole bag of money and not share it with the rest of the states and certainly not share it with victims who have claims,” Hampton said.
“There must be a settlement and a conclusion to this bankruptcy which does not exclude the 750 million dollars for the victims. It would be a crime in itself if all this fell apart and the victims received nothing.
The bankruptcy process is “unfortunately not ideal for doing justice to people involved in this particular type of litigation, where you have real people with human stories who have been affected by the actions of this company,” said said LaBelle.
“I can’t believe we’re this far down the road and still trying to get justice for those affected,” she said. But “if we are able to fix this problem and get money for states, local governments and individuals so that we can start building the kind of dependency system that we need in this country, then we can start moving forward.”
In the settlement, Purdue would be restructured into a public benefit corporation that produces naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses with prices surging for harm reduction groups last year.
“Reducing the harms associated with opioid use disorder certainly has to be part of the calculation,” LaBelle said.
“It’s an ongoing saga that we haven’t come to the end of yet, and we need to start healing people. We need to start moving forward.”
As Troy Lubinski’s opioid use disorder continued over the years, it affected everything. He stopped making mortgage payments, unbeknownst to his wife, and they lost their house. He pawned all the valuables.
When he finally got treatment for drug addiction, Troy told the doctor he was taking 40 pills a day – a revelation that shocked his wife.
“I just fell to the ground, in the fetal position,” Stephanie said. “How did I not know?” How was I not there for him? How did I not know all of this was happening?
But the treatment didn’t stop him from using opioids for a long time, and after that he became paranoid and delusional, Stephanie said. “I felt so bad for him, because that was his reality. And you can’t defend yourself against things that aren’t real.
Troy moved out and Stephanie filed for divorce to protect what little he had left, even though she still calls him her husband. “I always felt like he was going to come back to us,” she said in tears.
Troy backed off, and for a brief moment of hope, it seemed like he had finally changed. But then something stirred inside him once again. Troy committed suicide in September 2020.
Stephanie had already joined the colony by then, but after Troy died, she needed her story told. “I needed to write the letter, you know, instead of just a claim number,” she said.
“I believe the Sackler family should know what their greed has caused. They should know the name, Troy Lubinksi, and the many, many others who lost their lives to OxyContin,” she wrote in a letter to the judge presiding over the settlement.
But she did not join the colony to commemorate Troy. She doesn’t do it for herself either.
In 2017, Stephanie was diagnosed with a rare stage 4 cancer. She had three to five years to live.
She pressured the Sacklers for restitution because she wanted to leave something for their children, who were now young adults.
“I filed for them,” Stephanie said. “My kids deserve it after all they’ve been through, all they’ve lost.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be there to see anything. But I wanted them to have something.