Opioid victims’ mothers inspire Tong to fight Purdue Pharma

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong met in his office on Capitol Avenue in Hartford with two women from Southington whose sons died from opioid addictions that they said began with Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin.

For Tong, a fierce critic of Purdue and the Sackler family members who own the firm, it marked the latest of numerous meetings he has held with opioid victims and relatives of victims since starting in his current position in January 2019.

A few hours later, a federal judge issued a ruling that overturned a bankruptcy judge’s approval of the Stamford-based company’s settlement plan — a boost for Connecticut and the handful of other states that are appealing the plan.

In a statement that evening, Tong made sure to mention the meeting with the mothers, Christine Gagnon and Liz Fitzgerald, a gathering that focused on measures to tackle the opioid crisis.

As he pushes ahead with the appeal of Purdue’s proposed settlement of several thousand lawsuits including Connecticut’s, Tong draws on the support of opioid victims’ relatives such as Fitzgerald and Gagnon as a crucial motivator.

“Liz and I are both very big cheerleaders of Attorney General Tong. We’re going to stand by him,” Gagnon said in an interview. “I am going to keep fighting for two things: One, that the Sacklers are held accountable and, two, that the fentanyl crisis is properly addressed.”

For some relatives of victims, the risks of extending an already protracted legal battle seem too great. Tong, while fighting for them too, takes inspiration from those who say the offer isn’t adequate, notably Gagnon and Fitzgerald.

The company asserts that it would deliver billions of dollars to tackle the unrelenting national opioid crisis. Tong rejects the plan because he sees it as inadequate for dealing with the epidemic and unacceptable in its allowance of sweeping legal protections for the Sacklers.

“While we understand the objectors’ views are deeply held… [we] continue to believe the plan is the best option for people and communities suffering from the opioid crisis, the most fair and expeditious way to resolve the Purdue litigation, and the only way to deliver billions of dollars in value to fund programs specifically for abatement of the crisis,” Purdue said in a statement provided to Hearst Connecticut Media.

Two sons lost to the scourge

Fitzgerald and Gagnon are two of the thousands of Connecticut residents who have lost loved ones to opioids in recent years, as part of an epidemic that has gripped the country.

In 2013, one of Fitzgerald’s four sons, Kyle, died at age 25 of an accidental heroin overdose, after relapsing while on leave from the Merchant Marines, according to Fitzgerald.

In 2017, another of her sons, Matthew, died at age 32 after taking fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. He had a job in plumbing and heating, working toward a journeyman’s license for plumbing. Matthew had a daughter, who is now 15.

Fitzgerald said both of her sons’ struggles with opioids began with OxyContin. Kyle was prescribed the drug at age 16, after being stabbed in the back during an attack outside his home. Matthew first took OxyContin, at age 17, when a “friend” shared pills with him and other classmates, according to Fitzgerald.

“Kyle developed a liking for OxyContin after he was prescribed it — that ultimately resulted in addiction to heroin,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. “After losing his brother, Matthew was in great despair, spiraled out of control and lost his life at the age of 32 to pure-fentanyl poisoning.”

Gagnon’s son, Michael, died at age 22 in 2017 after taking fentanyl. He was working for Gagnon’s brother, as a carpenter, at Dream Developers, an East Hampton residential-and-commercial construction firm. He died six weeks after his daughter was born.

He was prescribed OxyContin for a football injury when he was 15, according to Gagnon. She said he continued to use the drug as OxyContin pills were “passed around high school like Tic Tacs.”

“My son passed away from pure fentanyl, but his addiction started with a pharmaceutical,” Gagnon said. “We’re not giving the Sacklers a pass, ever.”

Fighting in Congress and the courts

In their meeting with Tong, Fitzgerald and Gagnon sought his help in advocating for stronger regulations and enforcement to stem the flow of fentanyl. They believe a government designation of the drug as a “weapon of mass destruction” would support that goal.

Mirroring national trends, fentanyl and heroin comprised the resounding majority of the 1,273 fatal opioid overdoses in Connecticut in 2020 — a 13 percent increase from 2019, according to data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. In 2020, 84 percent of the accidental drug-intoxication deaths in the state involved fentanyl, while about 20 percent involved heroin.

“Liz and Christine explained various additional ways that our office can be helpful, including advocating for action by Congress and other federal agencies,” Tong said. “My office will explore every option within our ability and authority to hold the appropriate parties accountable for their role in the opioid crisis so that no one else has to experience the trauma and tragedy of losing a parent, child or loved one to opioid addiction.”

The thousands of lawsuits filed against Purdue in recent years by local and state governments across the country allege that many of the people who have died from opioid overdoses originally became dependent on or addicted to OxyContin, an oxycodone-based opioid. The complaints accuse Purdue of proliferating the drug through sales and marketing that deliberately misrepresented its risks and benefits.

“Hundreds of people in Connecticut have died or overdosed after obtaining prescriptions for Purdue opioids,” Connecticut said in its lawsuit against Purdue and the Sackler family members who own the company and formerly served on its board. The lawsuit was filed in December 2018.

Despite its settlement offer, Purdue denies the lawsuits’ accusations. The complaints were consolidated in its bankruptcy case, which started when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019.

The Sacklers have denied any wrongdoing related to Purdue. In response to an inquiry from Hearst Connecticut Media, a spokesman for the family of late Purdue co-founder Mortimer Sackler referred to a statement the family issued in September following bankruptcy judge Robert Drain’s approval of the settlement plan.

“We want to express our determination to make a constructive difference through this resolution,” the Mortimer Sackler family said in the statement. “While we dispute the allegations that have been made about our family, we have embraced this path in order to help combat a serious and complex public health crisis. We hope that the resolution will signal the beginning of a far-reaching effort to deliver assistance where it is most needed.”

‘I want them in an 8-by-8 cell’

In overturning Drain’s approval of Purdue’s settlement plan, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon of New York said in her Dec. 16 ruling that he did not have the authority to grant “third-party releases” from current and future lawsuits related to Purdue’s opioids to the members of the Sackler family who have been involved in the company.

The opposition of Connecticut and the handful of other appealing states focuses in large part on those releases, which are a condition of the Sacklers’ proposed contribution of about $4.3 billion in cash to the settlement. The Sacklers, whose family net worth in 2020 was estimated at nearly $11 billion by Forbes, have not personally filed for bankruptcy.

“During our work on opioids and the addiction crisis, it’s been very difficult for the state, victims and survivors,” Tong said. “There aren’t too many good days, but this ruling was a huge win for victims, survivors and the many families across Connecticut who are continuing to suffer from the worst public-health crisis in America, COVID notwithstanding.”

Fitzgerald and Gagnon are similarly opposed to the Sacklers being protected from the opioid litigation. They would also support criminal prosecution of the Sacklers — a potential scenario that the third-party releases would not prevent — because they believe that the Sacklers played a pivotal role in fueling the opioid crisis.

In November 2020, Purdue as a company pleaded guilty to three criminal charges of conspiring to defraud the government and violate anti-kickback law. No individuals, however, were charged in connection with that plea.

Also in 2020, the Sacklers involved with Purdue agreed to a $225 million settlement with the Department of Justice to resolve allegations of marketing and financial misconduct at Purdue. They did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of that deal.

“I want them in an 8-by-8 cell, and I want them bankrupt,” Fitzgerald said. “They destroyed this nation, and they shouldn’t get a pass. So I was over the moon when I got the notification about Judge McMahon’s ruling.”

But one woman who lives in Fairfield County and who filed a claim against Purdue through its bankruptcy said that she would be willing to accept the third-party releases. Her 21-year-old son died in 2017 from an overdose of fentanyl and carfentanil. She said he had been prescribed OxyContin for sports injuries when he was a teenager, prescriptions that she believes led to his later addiction to heroin.

“The Sacklers’ name has been tarnished forever,” the mother said in an interview. “I would love to see them pay more money, but not if it’s going to take another couple of years. We just don’t have time.”

She asked not to be named in this article because she said she had not been authorized by her attorneys to speak on the record about Connecticut’s appeal.

‘Never been about the money’

In response to McMahon’s ruling, Purdue officials said the firm would push ahead with “efforts to forge yet further consensus around a plan.” But they also warned that further litigation could threaten their settlement framework, which they value at more than $10 billion.

This year, the plan has gained the support of about 95 percent of approximately 120,000 voting creditors, including 43 states and territories. But the voting turnout comprised only about 20 percent of the total number of claimants in the company’s bankruptcy.

“While the district court decision does not affect Purdue’s rock-solid operational stability or its ability to produce its many medications safely and effectively, it will delay, and perhaps end, the ability of creditors, communities and individuals to receive billions in value to abate the opioid crisis,” Purdue Chairman Steve Miller said in a written statement. “These funds are needed now more than ever as overdose rates hit record-highs, and we are confident that we can successfully appeal this decision and deliver desperately needed funds to the communities and individuals suffering in the midst of this crisis.”

The settlement offer includes a total of approximately $700 million to $750 million for personal-injury claimants such as family members of deceased opioid victims and people who have survived opioid addiction. Recipients would receive payments between $3,500 and $48,000, according to Purdue’s terms.

Other major components of Purdue’s plan include about $4 billion to support a National Opioid Abatement Trust and the company’s development and distribution of treatments for opioid dependence and overdoses, medications whose total worth Purdue estimates at about $4 billion.

The implementation of Purdue’s plan would also result in the company being dissolved and succeeded by a “public-benefit company” focused on tackling the opioid crisis.

“It’s never been about the money,” said Gagnon, who did not file a personal-injury claim against Purdue related to Michael’s death. “There are some parents who are very angry that this bankruptcy didn’t go through. Liz and I are totally opposite.”

Fitzgerald said she would be willing to wait longer to receive settlement payments if Connecticut’s appeal ultimately led to a fair and just plan.

“I’m not doing this for money,” Fitzgerald said. “But if any money were to be awarded, it would go into a trust for Matthew’s daughter.”

The mother from Fairfield County, however, is worried that Connecticut’s appeal could derail a settlement — even though she is dissatisfied with the amount of the proposed personal-injury payments.

“We had to fight tooth and nail to get this small settlement, and now we may not even get that,” the mother said. “I just don’t see where the justice is. Justice would be getting my son back.”

Connecticut would receive approximately $55 million in cash from the National Opioid Abatement Trust, according to Purdue. Tong’s office more conservatively estimates that the state would receive about $20 million to $40 million from the trust.

The state can also draw from other funding sources to tackle the opioid crisis. As part of a $26 billion national settlement with pharmaceutical distributing giants AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson that Connecticut signed onto last summer, the state would receive about $300 million for treatment, prevention and recovery programs.

“The whole Purdue bankruptcy was a joke — it wasn’t done correctly,” Gagnon said. “We’re going to keep backing up Attorney General Tong until this gets straight and done right.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter: @paulschott

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