What Happened To Howard Udell? The Purdue Pharma Lawyer Found “Redemption”


Netflix’s Painkiller approaches the opioid crisis through several storylines, from the impact of OxyContin on families to the quest to hold Purdue Pharma accountable for the drug’s devastating fallout. Sadly, that quest largely ends in frustration. “No member of the Sackler family has been criminally charged in connection with the marketing of OxyContin or any overdose deaths involving the drug,” a card at the end of Painkiller reminds viewers.

Some figures depicted in Painkiller do, however, face legal repercussions. Howard Udell was Purdue Pharma’s general counsel and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor misbranding of OxyContin — along with Michael Friedman and Paul Goldenheim, the company’s former president and medical director, respectively. It wasn’t the verdict Edie Flowers (a composite character based on real people) was hoping for, but it did cause some change in Purdue Pharma’s executive leadership. “The company and the executives paid a combined $634.5 million in fines and the men were required to perform community service,” per The New York Times. They were also disbarred “from doing business with Medicare or other taxpayer-financed healthcare program[s]” for 12 years.

Udell died in 2013, well before he could return to the industry. However, he did go on to use his legal expertise in a different setting. According to the Hartford Courant, he and Friedman performed their court-ordered community service at the VA’s Errera Community Care Center in Connecticut. The idea, per the Courant, was to help advise veterans seeking employment — but they approached Udell for a different kind of guidance.

“When they found out that he was a lawyer, the veterans would just pop in and say, ‘Hey, I have a quick question about a legal issue,’” Margaret Middleton, Udell’s fellow lawyer and volunteer at the center, said in a New York University alumni interview. “By the time I met him, Howard had taken on 30 clients that way, totally incidentally.”

This led Udell and Middleton to co-found the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center in 2009 — and the organization helps veterans with a variety of health, housing, and legal needs to this day. Middleton praised Udell’s work at the first-of-its-kind center, where he worked for the rest of his life. “It was the most amazing redemption, because he ended up having such a profound effect on veterans,” Middleton told the Courant, describing Udell as an “extremely brilliant” colleague with “an unbelievable legal mind.”

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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