One day last spring, Ryan Hampton had a secret meeting with David Sackler, whose family-owned company, Purdue Pharma, was accused of helping precipitate the opioid crisis. Hampton was the co-chair of the Official Unsecured Creditors Committee (UCC), a powerful group that represented thousands of people and entities with claims against Purdue in what was then ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. His job was to act as a sort of watchdog, and he had access to a wealth of sensitive documents that Purdue and the Sacklers were forced to uncover. Hampton was also recovering from a devastating addiction to OxyContin and other opioids. He wanted to confront the family who 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 main architects of OxyContin’s success. But, according to a new memoir, “Unstable, Which Hampton will publish next month, he was told that Richard’s lawyers fear he and Richard will “end up killing each other by the end of the meeting.” Instead, David Sackler joined a Zoom reunion with Hampton and fellow UCC member Kara Trainor. They had to agree in advance not to tell anyone about the meeting, lest it be known that a member of the Sackler family was in direct contact with an adversary during the file bankruptcy proceedings.
At one point, Hampton writes, he asked, “Do you know anyone who has had a problem with opioids?
“I don’t,” replied Sackler.
Hampton had often felt stigmatized as someone struggling with drug addiction. Sackler informed him that he too knew what it was like to be stigmatized, because of his last name.
“How do you think your family will be remembered?” Hampton asked.
“Frankly, I’m not concerned with that reputational side of things,” Sackler said.
In a previous life, Hampton worked as a member of Bill Clinton’s campaign staff. After a backpacking injury in 2003, he was prescribed opioids and fell into an addiction, in which he abused prescription pain relievers, including OxyContin, and ultimately heroin. He was unable to hold a stable job and lost his apartment. He finally got sober in 2015, an experience he recounted in a previous memoir, “American Fix”—And has since worked as a speaker and advocate for addiction issues. Prior to assuming his role at UCC, Hampton had an openly hostile outlook towards the Sackler family. As far as he was concerned, he wrote, they should “rot in prison.”
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 if OxyContin kills people. “Sometimes,” Sackler says, adding, “I don’t think the manufacturer was more responsible than the manufacturer of a car involved in a fatal accident.” (Hampton marvels at the billionaire’s coldness: “Zero fucks given.”) Beyond those who die, there is a larger community of people who, like Hampton, have struggled with drugs but survived. And beyond that, there is an even larger community of families whose lives have been touched by drug addiction.
Purdue had been sued by virtually every state across the country and by thousands of other plaintiffs. Attorneys general in about 20 states had filed civil lawsuits against members of the Sackler family who had served on the company’s board of directors. This is what lawyers call a “mass tort” situation, but tort law would not be the mechanism to resolve it. Instead, in September 2019, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, New York. US companies can choose where they want to file for bankruptcy, and the company had handpicked a judge whom it hoped to get a favorable outcome.
Earlier this month, that judge, Robert Drain, conditionally signed a controversial settlement in the case. The Sacklers will give up their interest in Purdue and pay around $ 4.5 billion over the next decade to fund drug addiction treatments and other solutions to the opioid epidemic. But, in return, the family will receive broad immunity from any future civil liability related to the crisis – and a relatively small fraction of the overall settlement will go directly to individual victims and their families. The day before Drain approved the deal, Hampton resigned in protest. Her frustration had grown throughout the process. Although he vowed to keep the sensitive work he did a secret, he was also secretly writing a memoir. “Unsettled” is an account of his Kafkaesque experience with the Purdue bankruptcy, and it provides plenty of new detail on how a bankruptcy court is not an ideal forum for redressing widespread damages and malpractice – and on the reclusive family in the center. Of the history. According to Hampton’s blunt assessment, the bankruptcy was a “bloodbath.”
For years, Purdue and the Sacklers have argued that people become addicted to drugs of their own accord, and that the business – and the family that owns it – shouldn’t be held responsible for the thoughtless decisions of others. In the 2020 testimony, Richard Sackler said: “People who take and abuse OxyContin take a risk, just as important as they take when abusing illicit drugs.” For him, these people were not victims at all. They were executioners. Nonetheless, after filing for bankruptcy, Purdue launched a campaign of public announcements to inform those who may have been harmed by its products that they had the right to bring a claim against the company. Over a hundred thousand people have done it. On UCC, Hampton was joined by three other victims: Trainor, who herself had used drugs and given birth to a child born dependent on opioids; Cheryl Juaire, who lost a son to a prescription opioid overdose; and Walter Lee Salmons, a grandfather who was helping 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, like Blue Cross Blue Shield. According to Hampton’s assessment, those companies, which were lining up for some of what was left of Purdue, were in some cases themselves to blame. CVS, who also sat on the committee, was a defendant in several lawsuits relating to his own role in the exacerbation of the crisis. Hampton describes himself as an outsider who tries to do the right thing, only to learn that the game has been fixed from the start. He wants justice – “pure justice, the kind we read in books and see in movies.” Balance is restored to the galaxy, the bad guys are defeated, and everyone gets 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 too mystical and complex for a non-lawyer to understand. Within the profession, bankruptcy law is its own island niche. For Hampton, it seemed that the bankruptcy participants “all knew each other or had worked together in the past.” Drain was a former corporate bankruptcy lawyer. Many of the lawyers appearing in the case were regular players in his courtroom. He tended to speak of non-lawyers in a kindly condescending tone and suggest that, because they weren’t lawyers, there was a lot that they just didn’t understand.
In this environment, Hampton felt like the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” returning again and again to the fundamental questions of justice for the victims he represented. But he came to suspect that the case was dominated by rapacious institutional interests. His contempt even extends to state attorneys general, such as Maura Healey, of Massachusetts, and Letitia James, of New York, who filed suit against the Sacklers. He describes a particularly bitter loss, in which an early emergency relief fund plan to quickly bring resources to communities battling the opioid crisis was scrapped. In Hampton’s view, states wanted the money to be administered by states rather than at the community level. “They are politicians,” he says of attorneys general. “Many participate in it for political purposes.” (Responding to requests for comment, representatives for Healey and James pointed out that any funds their states get from Purdue and the Sacklers will go toward funding programs for prevention, education, treatment, and recovery.)