Native Americans Demanding Chance to Try Opioid Suits Separately

(Bloomberg) -- Native American tribes devastated by the U.S. opioid epidemic asked a judge set up a separate track for their lawsuits targeting makers and distributors of the painkillers for creating a public-health crisis.

Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe and others feel “marginalized’’ by having their cases lumped in with states’ opioid claims, David Domina, a lawyer for the tribes, told U.S. District Judge Daniel Polster Thursday. Polster, who has been pressing for a quick resolution of the suits, said he’d consider the request.

“If there is a resolution, it won’t be without’’ the tribes’ consent, the judge said.

Polster is overseeing more than 600 lawsuits blaming opioid makers, such as Purdue Pharma LP and Johnson & Johnson, and distributors like McKesson Corp. of understating the risks of prescription opioids, overstating their benefits, and failing to halt suspiciously large shipments to pharmacies. States, local governments and Indian tribes are seeking to recoup the costs of dealing with waves of opioid addictions.

Because of the havoc opioid addiction is wreaking among native people, tribal leaders felt “the need to speak out’’ against being lumped in with other groups, Domina said at a hearing in Cleveland. The Omaha, Nebraska-based lawyer represents all the tribes in his state. More than 30 other tribes, including the Cherokee Nation and the Navajo Nation, have filed suits over the fallout from opioid addictions.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies have found one in 10 Native Americans between 12 and 19 used prescription opioids for non-medical purposes in 2012. That was double the rate of white teens. Native Americans saw a five-fold increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015, Dr. Michael Toedt told a U.S. Senate Committee in March. Toedt is the Indian Health Services’ chief medical officer.

Polster said U.S. cities and counties who’ve sued pharmaceutical companies are making progress in settlement talks and he expects to produce remedies for some aspects of the epidemic. More than 100 Americans die daily from opioid overdoses. “We will be taking some steps this year to turn the trajectory of the epidemic down,’’ Polster said. He didn’t provide specifics.

About 40 protesters gathered outside the Cleveland courthouse to urge opioid makers and distributors to take responsibility for their role in the epidemic. Some held signs saying, “Big Pharma Lied, People Died.’’ Others held placards saying, “McKesson CEO makes a killing while Americans drown in opioids.’’

Ryka Rutherford, of Akorn, Ohio, said she came out for the protest to remember her 33-year-old son who died of an opioid overdose on his birthday. “I would like to see the pharma companies help clean up the mess they made,’’ she said.

The case is In Re: National Prescription Opiate Litigation, 17-MD-2804, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland).

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