Cherokee Nation case could become test for other opioid lawsuits

02/11/2020 10:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
On Feb. 5, a judicial panel sent the Cherokee Nation’s case back against opioid manufacturers and distributors back to federal court in Muskogee0. Judges hope the cases can serve as examples to guide decisions affecting similar opioid lawsuits. COURTESY
MUSKOGEE – Over the objections of the defendants, the Cherokee Nation lawsuit against opioid distributors and dispensaries has been returned to Muskogee for federal trial, where it could become a test case to set precedent for thousands of suits filed over the opioid epidemic in the United States.

The CN has filed suit against a number of major pharmacies and drug distributors – including CVS, Walmart and Walgreens – alleging they fanned opioid addiction inside the CN jurisdiction by refusing to acknowledge “known or knowable problems in their own supply chains.”

In the lawsuit, the tribe states, that “Between 2003 and 2014, there were over 350 opioid-related deaths within the Cherokee Nation. For adults within the Cherokee Nation, overdose deaths now outnumber deaths due to car accidents.”

The lawsuit is among nearly 2,700 against the opioid industry in a federal case in Ohio. The multi-district case was stalled despite an attempt to streamline the complaints through consolidation.

On Feb. 5, the judicial panel sent the CN case back to Muskogee, and returned to California a case filed by the city and county of San Francisco.

Judges hope the cases can serve as examples to guide decisions affecting similar opioid lawsuits.

“We want our day in court,” CN Attorney General Sara Hill said while speaking to Oklahoma media. Hill characterized the return of the case to Muskogee as a “good thing.”

The defendants argued against using the CN case to establish precedent, and pointed to the pending appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court of an appealed non-jury verdict from Cleveland County District Court in a suit filed by the state of Oklahoma against Johnson & Johnson. The defendants claim the Oklahoma case will set precedent.

Johnson & Johnson appealed the decision of District Judge Thad Balkman, who ruled in favor of the state and awarded $465 million. Oklahoma had asked for $17.2 billion.

Hill said a tribal complaint might have facets that differ from one filed by a state, county or municipality, including jurisdictional questions.

“Indian Country has its own issues,” Hill said. “Tribal citizens get health care from the Indian Health Service − a lot of them do. Our data shows that Indian Country is more likely to be negatively impacted by opioid addiction than other races.”


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