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Deal with OxyContin maker leaves families angry, conflicted

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Among the families who lost children and other loved ones in the nation’s opioid crisis, many had held out hope of someday facing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and its owners in a courtroom.

That prospect all but vanished Wednesday after a bankruptcy judge conditionally approved a settlement worth an estimated $10 billion. It was a deal that left many of those families feeling they didn’t get what they really wanted.

There was no apology from members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, they weren’t forced to give up all of their vast fortune, and there was no chance to confront them face-to-face about the lives lost to opioids.

Instead, the individual victims, thousands of state and local governments and other entities that sued Purdue Pharma agreed to a deal in which the Sacklers will pay $4.5 billion and give up ownership of the company, which will be reorganized.

The company’s profits and the Sacklers’ contribution will go toward fighting opioid addiction through treatment and education programs. Also, victims of drug addiction can receive payments ranging from $3,500 to $48,000.

The conclusion to the case left families conflicted, deflated and still angry.

“Am I happy they don’t have to admit guilt and give up all their money? Of course not,” said Lynn Wencus, of Wrentham, Massachusetts. “But what would that do? It doesn’t bring my son back and it doesn’t help those who are suffering.”

In the first years after her son Jeff died of an overdose in 2017, all she wanted was vengeance. While her anger remains, she is hopeful the settlement will finally bring help to communities ravaged by overdoses.

“I know people disagree with that and want the Sacklers to suffer,” she said. “But the reality is we need money to get into the states, into education, into treatment.”

A half-million Americans have died from opioids over the past two decades, a toll that includes victims of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin and illicit drugs such as heroin and street-grade fentanyl.

In one of the hardest-fought provisions in the settlement, the family will be protected from any future opioid lawsuits. While the Sacklers weren’t given immunity from criminal charges, there have been no indications they will face any.

Despite the settlement, the family could see its wealth rise from an estimated $10.7 billion to more than $14 billion over the coming decade, according to a group of state attorneys general who based their projection on investment returns and interest. Lawyers for Purdue and the Sackler family disputed the estimate.

“Their lives aren’t going to change. It’s a shame there can’t be something done that would make them suffer with the rest of us,” said Tamara Graham, of St. Petersburg, Florida.

But she was willing to accept the outcome because it gives her a sliver of hope that the money for treatment could save her youngest brother, who has struggled with addiction for longer than she can remember.

“I wish that I could stand up there,” she said. “I would love to make them watch a video of him going through withdrawals, the pain, the vomiting, him begging us to kill him.”

The settlement came nearly two years after the Stamford, Connecticut-based company filed for bankruptcy while facing some 3,000 lawsuits that accused Purdue of fueling the crisis by aggressively pushing sales of OxyContin.

“You don’t take the architects of the opioid crisis and give them a sweetheart deal,” said Ed Bisch, whose 18-year-old son died of an overdose nearly 20 years ago. “Where is the deterrent?”

Bisch, who has spent more than a decade pushing for the Sacklers to be criminally prosecuted, is leading a group of families that are asking the U.S. Justice Department to appeal the settlement.

“The Sacklers are buying immunity with blood money,” said Bisch, of Westampton, New Jersey. “The only silver lining is their name is mud, and it will forever be mud.”

Purdue Pharma will be reorganized into a new company with a board appointed by public officials and will funnel its profits into government-led efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction.

The drugmaker said in a statement that the settlement will avert years of costly litigation and instead ensure that billions will go to help people and communities hurt by the crisis.

“I feel like the victims are once again at the bottom of the list,” said Dede Yoder, of Norwalk, Connecticut. “I don’t know what the states feel that their loss was. I can tell them what my loss is.”

Her only child, Chris, died of an overdose in 2017 when he was 21. He was first given OxyContin after knee surgeries as a teenager.

“I would have loved a moment in front of the Sacklers to show them pictures of my son as this beautiful boy and this happy, athletic, strong person that they decimated,” she said.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain acknowledged the concerns of those who complained that the proposed payouts to victims are insufficient. He also pointed out that none of the four Sacklers who testified offered an explicit apology.

“A forced apology is not really an apology, so we will have to live without one,” he said.

The judge said he did not have “fondness for the Sacklers or sympathy for them” but he also said that drawn-out litigation would delay getting settlement money to victims and programs for treating opioid addiction.

“Now it’s its over. It’s done, just like our children’s lives,” said Vicki Meyer Bishop, of Clarksburg, Maryland, whose 45-year-old son, Brian Meyer, died four years ago.

She said she at least hopes the money will help open more spaces in treatment programs and lift the stigma surrounding addiction.

“We need to worry about the 200 who will die tomorrow. If the money can go to help them, it’s all worth it,” she said. “I’m hoping we can save 200 today, 200 tomorrow and the next day.”

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Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

John Seewer And Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press

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Mohawk Council of Kahnawake ‘repulsed’ by politicization of Habs’ land acknowledgment

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MONTREAL — The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake is blasting the Quebec government for questioning a land acknowledgment by the Montreal Canadiens that refers to the unceded territory of the Mohawk Nation.

The statement, which has been read before the NHL team’s home games this season, acknowledges the hospitality of the Mohawk Nation “on this traditional and unceded territory where we are gathered today.”

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière told reporters on Wednesday the acknowledgment may be an error.

In a statement Thursday, the elected council for the First Nations reserve across the river from Montreal commended the hockey club’s gesture as an example of true reconciliation and added it was “repulsed” by the province’s attempt to politicize the effort, which it said undermines the Mohawk presence in the Montreal region.

On Wednesday, Lafrenière told reporters that referring to a specific nation may be a mistake as historians differ on which nation was the first to live in Montreal, while adding it was important to recognize that First Nations were the first occupants.

Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said in a statement that land is an essential part of Mohawk identity.

“It holds the knowledge of our ancestors, our history and our presence, now and for the future,” Sky-Deer said. “Opinionated commentary that challenge and discredit our presence are not only insulting, they are taken as displaced attacks on our existence.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Supreme Court of Canada sides with injured woman in snow-clearing squabble

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OTTAWA — A woman will get another chance to sue for damages over a leg injury she suffered while climbing through snow piled by a city’s plow, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

Taryn Joy Marchi alleged the City of Nelson, B.C., created a hazard when it cleared snow from downtown streets after a storm in early January 2015.

The removal effort left snow piles at the edge of the street along the sidewalk early in the morning of Jan. 5.

Late in the afternoon of Jan. 6, Marchi — then a 28-year-old nurse — parked in an angled spot on the street and, wearing running shoes with a good tread, tried to cross a snow pile to get on to the sidewalk.

Her right foot dropped through the snow and she fell forward, seriously injuring her leg.

Marchi contended the city should have left openings in the snowbank to allow safe passage to the sidewalk.

She pointed to the neighbouring municipalities of Castlegar, Rossland and Penticton in arguing there were preferable ways to clear the streets so as to ensure safe access for pedestrians.

However, the trial judge dismissed her case, saying the city was immune from liability because it made legitimate policy decisions about snow clearing based on the availability of personnel and resources.

In any event, the judge concluded, Marchi assumed the risk of crossing the snow pile and was “the author of her own misfortune.”

The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the decision and ordered a new trial, saying the judge erred in addressing the city’s duty of care and the question of Marchi’s negligence.

The ruling prompted the City of Nelson to seek a hearing in the Supreme Court.

In a written submission to the high court, the city said its actions amount to “a clear example of a core policy decision” that should be immune from liability.

In her filing with the court, Marchi said city employees made a number of operational decisions that fell below the expected standard of care of a municipality — decisions not required by the written policy.

In its 7-0 ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court said a fresh trial should take place because the city has not proved that its decision on how to clear the snow was “a core policy decision” immune from liability.

While there is no suggestion the city made an irrational or “bad faith decision,” the city’s core policy defence fails and it owed Ms. Marchi a duty of care, justices Sheilah Martin and Andromache Karakatsanis wrote on behalf of the court.

“The regular principles of negligence law apply in determining whether the City breached the duty of care and, if so, whether it should be liable for Ms. Marchi’s damages.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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