A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux alleges that major manufacturers and distributors of opioids created a public health crisis on their reservation by fraudulently concealing the addiction risk of the drugs.
The tribe, located in North and South Dakota, sued 24 defendants in the opioid industry, seeking damages for what it alleges are violations of federal racketeering laws, deceptive trade practices, and fraudulent and negligent conduct.
The 102-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota, says the American Indian community has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
Indians suffer the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdoses, and pregnant Indian women are more than eight times more likely to be diagnosed with opioid dependency compared with the next highest demographic, the suit alleges. Drug-overdose deaths among all Americans increased by more than 200 percent between 1999 and 2015. At the same time, the death rate rose by more than 500 percent among Indians and native Alaskans, according to the lawsuit.
As a consequence, the suit alleges, tribal costs have skyrocketed for such things as child welfare and foster care, law enforcement, and health care.
“The opioid epidemic has hit Indian Country hard, and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is no exception,” said Tim Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota and a member of the Robins Kaplan legal team that filed the suit on behalf of the tribe.
Defendants in the case include pharmaceutical manufacturers Purdue Pharma L.P., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., and Allergan PLC, and pharmaceutical distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and AmerisourceBergen Corp.
In response to the suit, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing wholesale distributors, said the litigation is misdirected. The alliance includes McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen as members.
“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” John Parker, senior vice president of communications for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in a statement. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
The suit is the latest among Indian tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas that are taking legal action against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Three North and South Dakota tribes filed suit in federal court last month against two dozen companies. Minnesota’s Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe filed a similar suit in December, the same month the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin filed suit against the industries they accuse of minimizing nationwide abuse of prescription narcotics.