WASHINGTON – Lynn Wencus and Ellen Isaacs share a similar story that ends with the same tragedy: Both women lost sons to the opioid crisis, which still claims tens of thousands of American lives every year.
Both mothers remember feeling reassured that the painkillers prescribed to their sons were safe. Both tell harrowing stories about scrambling to find treatment centers and feeling hopeless through relapses. Both remember listening as their sons predicted that they would die young from addiction.
Both of their sons were right. Isaacs' son, Ryan, and Wencus' son, Jeff, were 33 when they died.
Despite all that Wencus and Isaacs have in common, they are diametrically opposed to each other in a blockbuster case at the Supreme Court this year centered on Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for OxyContin. At the heart of that appeal is a dispute over how much to punish the Sackler family, which made its fortune selling the drug that fueled an epidemic.
Under the terms of a bankruptcy settlement the high court is considering, the Sackler family agreed to pay $6 billion in exchange for being shielded from future civil lawsuits. Wencus believes the deal will do more good than harm, not only for her son's memory but also for a nation struggling with addiction.
"Do I want to see them rot in hell? Absolutely," said Wencus, 70, who is retired and lives in Massachusetts. "But if we can get this money and put it into treatment the right way, then we are saving lives."
Isaacs says the Sacklers are getting off way too easy.
"It's absolutely absurd that they think they're just going to be able to walk away with their wealth intact," said Isaacs, 58, a retired mortgage fraud investigator.
Should the Sacklers get to keep billions?
The Supreme Court is being asked to settle a version of that same debate.
U.S. Trustee William Harrington, who serves as a watchdog over the bankruptcy process for the Justice Department, is objecting to the Purdue agreement. Harrington argues in part that federal bankruptcy courts simply don't have the power to shield the Sacklers from future lawsuits.
By the time Purdue declared bankruptcy in 2019, the company and the Sacklers were facing trillions of dollars in claims from Americans affected by opioids. Before Purdue filed for bankruptcy, the Sacklers spent years siphoning an estimated $11 billion out of the company, according to the Justice Department.
Critics such as Isaacs say the Sacklers shouldn't get to keep so much of that money.
Supporters such as Wencus say it's uncertain whether a better deal could ever be reached. The court fight over Purdue 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. The vast majority of known opioid victims and their families back the settlement.
“This is a victim's plan,” said Edward Neiger, a lawyer who represents 60,000 people who are victims of the opioid crisis, including Wencus. “The DOJ appeal is not hurting the Sacklers − it's helping them. The Sacklers get to sit on their money for another year or two.”
Opponents question the true scope of support for the settlement, noting it's impossible to count future victims. 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.
Michael Quinn, who represents Issacs, said broader concerns about corporate accountability are also at stake.
"Decision-makers within a company, by getting these releases, might act more recklessly," Quinn said. "Their appetite for risk in harming the public will increase."
The idea of shielding parties from lawsuits began in the 1980s to protect insurance companies tied to bankruptcies in the asbestos industry. Years later, a similar tactic was used to deal with personal injury claims related to silicone breast implants. A $2.46 billion settlement over sex abuse allegations against the Boy Scouts of America protects Boy Scouts councils, churches and other groups from future claims.
Now, the Supreme Court will review the practice. The justices are expected to hear arguments in the case this year and hand down a decision by June.
‘I’m going to die young’
Wencus doesn’t quite know when Jeff began what she describes as his "love affair" with opioids. In junior high school, doctors prescribed the painkillers after a surgery. Years later, he injured his back at his job as a truck driver and was given the drugs. Looking back, she realizes that her family − like the rest of the nation – was naïve about the dangers of addiction.
"Back then, we all thought doctors did what was best for the patient," she said.
Isaacs tells a similar story about Ryan, who was prescribed OxyContin after damaging his spinal column one day around 2001 while horsing around with friends. When it didn't quite ease his pain, she remembers doctors repeatedly upping the dose – 10 milligrams, 20 milligrams, 40 milligrams.
"I put my foot down," Isaacs recalls.
But it was too late.
Both women remember frantically searching for treatment up and down the East Coast, anyplace with a bed. Wencus pulled money from her retirement savings. Isaacs remembers arriving at treatment centers only to be told no spots were available. Come back tomorrow.
"He would tell me, 'I'm going to die young,'" Isaacs said.
"I remember Jeff saying to me, 'My rock-bottom will be death,'" Wencus said.
Though Isaacs and Wencus are on opposites sides of the case, Harrington v. Purdue Pharma, they agree on a lot. Both believe the government isn't doing enough to combat addiction. Isaacs says officials should mobilize to distribute the overdose reversal drug Narcan with the same fervor that made COVID-19 tests widely available during the pandemic. Wencus believes the country must embrace safe-injection sites where people who are addicted can use drugs in a controlled setting and more easily access treatment.
Both of them say they are fighting to honor the memory of their sons.
"There's no amount of money that is going to bring my son back," Wencus said. "However, for his legacy, I would like to see this money go to treatment. And I would like to hope that if we could save even one life, it would be worth it."
"My son would want that."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Purdue Pharma case drives wedge between victims of opioid crisis