An Insider from the Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Speaks Out

One day last spring, Ryan Hampton had a secret meeting with David Sackler, whose family’s company, Purdue Pharma, stood accused of helping to precipitate the opioid crisis. Hampton was the co-chair of the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors (U.C.C.), a powerful group that represented thousands of people and entities with claims against Purdue in what was then an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. His job was to act as a sort of watchdog, and he had access to a trove of sensitive material that Purdue and the Sacklers were compelled to turn over in discovery. Hampton was also in recovery from a devastating addiction to OxyContin and other opioids. He wanted to confront the family that had made billions of dollars from a drug that had caused so much suffering.

Initially, Hampton had demanded a face-to-face meeting with David’s father, Richard Sackler, one of the chief architects of OxyContin’s success. But, according to a new memoir, “Unsettled,” which Hampton will publish next month, he was told that Richard’s attorneys were worried that Richard and he would “end up killing each other by the end of the meeting.” Instead, David Sackler joined a Zoom meeting with Hampton and another member of the U.C.C., Kara Trainor. They had to agree in advance not to tell anyone about the meeting, lest word get out that a member of the Sackler family was liaising directly with an adversary during the bankruptcy proceedings.

At one point, Hampton writes, he asked, “Do you know anyone that’s struggled with opioids?”

“I don’t,” Sackler replied.

Hampton had often felt stigmatized as someone who struggled with addiction. Sackler informed him that he, too, knew what it felt like to be stigmatized—because of his family name.

“How do you think your family is going to be remembered?” Hampton asked.

“Frankly, I’m not concerned about that reputational side of things,” Sackler said.

In a previous life, Hampton worked as a campaign staffer for Bill Clinton. After a hiking injury, in 2003, he was prescribed opioids and fell into an addiction, in which he abused prescription painkillers, including OxyContin, and eventually heroin. He couldn’t hold a steady job and lost his apartment. He finally got sober, in 2015—an experience that he recounted in a previous memoir, “American Fix”—and has since worked as a speaker and advocate on addiction issues. Prior to assuming his role on the U.C.C., Hampton had an openly antagonistic view toward the Sackler family. As far as he was concerned, he writes, they should “rot in jail.”

The status of the victims in the Purdue Pharma case is complicated. There are, indisputably, many people who have died from overdoses involving Purdue’s drugs. In “Unsettled,” Hampton quotes a sealed deposition from 2020 in which Richard Sackler is asked whether OxyContin kills people. “Sometimes,” Sackler says, adding, “I don’t think that the manufacturer was any more responsible than the manufacturer of a car that’s involved in a fatal accident.” (Hampton marvels at the billionaire’s iciness: “Zero fucks given.”) Beyond those who die, there is a broader community of people who, like Hampton, have struggled with the drug but survived. And beyond that is an even larger community of families whose lives have been impacted by addiction.

Purdue had been sued by virtually every state in the nation and by thousands of other plaintiffs. The attorneys general of some two dozen states had brought civil charges against members of the Sackler family who had served on the company’s board. This is what lawyers call a “mass tort” situation, but tort law would not be the mechanism for resolving it. Instead, in September, 2019, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, New York. American corporations can choose where they want to file for bankruptcy, and the company had handpicked a judge from whom it hoped to obtain a favorable result.

Earlier this month, that judge, Robert Drain, conditionally signed off on a controversial settlement in the case. The Sacklers will give up their interest in Purdue and pay some four and a half billion dollars over roughly the next decade to fund addiction treatments and other solutions to the opioid epidemic. But, in exchange, the family will receive a sweeping grant of immunity from any future civil liability related to the crisis—and a comparatively small fraction of the over-all settlement will be paid out directly to individual victims and their families. The day before Drain issued his approval of the deal, Hampton resigned in protest. His frustration had been growing throughout the proceeding. Although he had been sworn to secrecy about the sensitive work that he was doing, he was also secretly writing a memoir. “Unsettled” is an account of his Kafkaesque experience inside the Purdue bankruptcy, and he provides many new details about the ways in which a bankruptcy court is not an ideal forum for redressing widespread harm and corporate misconduct—and about the reclusive family at the center of the story. In Hampton’s brutal assessment, the bankruptcy was a “bloodbath.”

For years, Purdue and the Sacklers argued that people become addicted to drugs of their own free will, and that the company—and the family that owned it—should not be held responsible for the rash decisions of others. In the 2020 deposition, Richard Sackler said, “People who take OxyContin and abuse it are taking a risk, just as big as they take when they abuse illicit drugs.” To him, these people weren’t victims at all. They were perpetrators. Nevertheless, after filing for bankruptcy, Purdue launched a public-notice campaign to inform those who might have been injured by its products that they were entitled to make a claim against the company. More than a hundred thousand people did. On the U.C.C., Hampton was joined by three other victims: Trainor, who had used the drugs herself and given birth to a child who was born dependent on opioids; Cheryl Juaire, who had lost a son to a prescription-opioid overdose; and Walter Lee Salmons, a grandfather who was helping to raise two children affected by the crisis.

But they were in the minority. The rest of the committee was made up of big institutional players, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield. In Hampton’s assessment, these companies, which were lining up for a piece of what was left of Purdue, were in some cases culpable themselves. CVS, which also had a seat on the committee, was a defendant in multiple lawsuits related to its own role in exacerbating the crisis. Hampton depicts himself as an outsider who tries to do the right thing, only to learn that the game has been fixed from the beginning. He wants justice—“pure justice, the kind we read about in books and see in movies. Balance is restored to the galaxy, the bad guys are vanquished, and all get what they deserve.” But he soon realizes, “I was in a completely different league, playing by a set of rules that made no sense to me.”

The legal profession is a guild, like any other, with a tendency to make its work sound too mystical and complex for any non-lawyer to understand. Within the profession, bankruptcy law is its own insular niche. To Hampton, it seemed as if the participants in the bankruptcy “all knew one another or had worked together in the past.” Drain was a former corporate-bankruptcy lawyer. Many of the attorneys appearing in the case were repeat players in his courtroom. He had a tendency to talk about non-lawyers in a gently patronizing tone and suggest that, because they weren’t lawyers, there were many things they simply might not comprehend.

In this milieu, Hampton felt like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” returning again and again to baseline questions of justice for the victims he represented. But he came to suspect that the case was dominated by rapacious institutional interests. His scorn extends even to state attorneys general, such as Maura Healey, of Massachusetts, and Letitia James, of New York, who filed suits against the Sacklers. He describes one particularly bitter loss, in which an early plan for an emergency-relief fund to quickly bring resources to communities fighting the opioid crisis was abandoned. In Hampton’s view, the states wanted money to be administered by the states, rather than at a community level. “They’re politicians,” he says, of the attorneys general. “Many are in it for political gain.”(In response to requests for comment, representatives for Healey and James emphasized that all funds that their states secure from Purdue and the Sacklers will be devoted to funding prevention, education, and treatment and recovery programs.)

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