Three Native American tribes from the Dakotas filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against major opioid manufacturers and distributors, seeking monetary damages for an epidemic that has had devastating impacts for tribal members.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate filed suit in U.S. District Court in South Dakota against 24 opioid industry defendants.
The tribes are represented by former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson who now lead the American Indian Law and Policy Group for national firm Robins Kaplan.
“The prescription opioid crisis has hit Indian Country hard,” said Purdon, adding Monday he is “hopeful” that other North Dakota tribes also will file suit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one in 10 Native Americans used prescription opioids for non-medical purposes in 2012, compared with 1 in 20 whites, the complaint notes.
Chairman Dave Flute of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, which crosses the South Dakota-North Dakota border, said opioid abuse is an epidemic for the tribe.
“It’s growing to the point of being catastrophic,” Flute said Monday. “It’s causing more health conditions, causing social dysfunction, family separations. It’s negatively impacting our social way of life.”
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In South Dakota in 2015-16, Native Americans represented 17.8 percent of opioid use deaths and 28 percent of patients treated for opioid use, while making up about 9 percent of the state’s population.
“We’re challenged with an epidemic here. And we need to hold people accountable for their actions, all people,” Flute said. “Those that use, those that abuse, and those that are contributing the problem, and that includes the pharmaceutical companies.”
The 100-page complaint accuses the opioid industry defendants of fraudulently concealing and minimizing the addiction risk of prescription opioids. It also alleges the defendants failed to comply with federal prescription drug laws intended to prevent diversion of opioids and prevent their abuse.
The complaint seeks unspecified damages for allegations of deceptive trade practices, fraudulent and negligent conduct and alleged violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. It also seeks injunctive relief that would prevent defendants from continuing unlawful conduct.
“The effect of opioids on South Dakota tribes has been horrific,” Johnson said in a statement. “This epidemic has overwhelmed our public-health and law-enforcement services, drained resources for addiction therapy and sent the cost of caring for children of opioid-addicted parents skyrocketing.”
The complaint seeks a jury trial to determine damages caused by the opioid epidemic, as well as punitive damages. It also seeks an “abatement fund,” which could pay for treatment programs.
Defendants in the case include pharmaceutical manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Allergan, and pharmaceutical distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp.