Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations sue opioid manufacturers
The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations have each filed lawsuits against 19 opioid manufacturers — joining a long list of tribes, states, cities and counties that have accused drug companies of deceptive marketing practices that contributed to the nation's opioid addiction epidemic.
"Opioid manufacturers knowingly preyed on the addiction and suffering of Americans for decades and did nothing about it," Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said Friday at a news conference. "These companies and their executives made billions of dollars, while our family members and friends died, or continued suffering from addiction."
"As far as I'm concerned, they are the definition of evil and they should be held accountable," he said.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals, one of the companies named in the lawsuit, issued a statement Friday contending their company has behaved responsibly.
"Opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues," the company's statement said. "We are committed to being part of the ongoing dialogue and to doing our part to find ways to address this crisis. Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible. The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated. In fact, our medications have some of the lowest rates of abuse among this class of medications."
Hunter said he totally supports the tribes' efforts to recover damages from drug companies.
State suit moved
In a related development, Hunter said his office has received notice that the state won its efforts to have a separate state lawsuit against opioid manufacturers sent back to Cleveland County District Court. Drug manufacturers earlier had removed that case to federal court, claiming it raised federal issues.
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Hunter said he was excited by Friday morning's ruling by Oklahoma City federal judge Vicki Miles LaGrange, because it means an Oklahoma jury will get to determine the damage done to Oklahomans by the drug companies' "deceitful" marketing efforts, rather than having the case consolidated with hundreds of other lawsuits against drug companies that are being overseen by a federal judge in Columbus, Ohio.
"Where we want to be is before a jury of Oklahomans deciding these damages, not before a group of plaintiff's lawyers in a smoke-filled room in Columbus, Ohio," Hunter said.
Attorneys in the state case are expected to meet for a status conference with Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman as early as next week. A May 2019 trial date is anticipated.
Like the state, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations chose to file their lawsuits in state courts rather than federal court.
The Chickasaw Nation filed its lawsuit in Pontotoc County District Court, where its tribal headquarters are located, while the Choctaw Nation filed its lawsuit in Bryan County District Court, where its tribal headquarters are situated. Both lawsuits were filed Thursday.
Michael Burrage, who is the lead attorney for the two tribes as well as the lead outside legal counsel for the state, said the reason the tribes filed their lawsuits in state courts rather than federal court is the same as the reason the state did — they want Oklahoma judges and juries making decisions about actions that have impacted Oklahomans.
'It's a travesty'
The tribes have not determined the dollar amount of damages they will seek, but "it is substantial, very substantial," Burrage said.
The tribes and state contend the drug companies "deceitfully" made a decision to disguise the addictive qualities of opioids in order to increase profits.
"They paid credentialed people to go around the country and argue that opioids weren't addictive," Hunter said. "They spent hundreds of millions of dollars brainwashing, in our view, prescribers."
Native American communities have been among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, Hunter said, adding that federal reports show that opioid deaths increased more than 500 percent among Native Americans and Native Alaskans from 1999 to 2015.
"These deaths are nightmarish and needless," he said. "Children should not be born addicted to opioids and go into withdrawal moments after they take their first breath."
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said less than a month ago he attended a funeral for a young man in his 20s who overdosed on opioids.
"It's a travesty what has happened — not just to the tribes, but for all people of this country," Anoatubby said. "The deception, the out-and-out untruths that were passed along by these companies."
"We have treatment facilities that are filling up with people who have opioid addiction," he said. "It's affected our families in such a negative way that we must do something ... . We expect to hold these companies accountable for what they've done to this country and to the Native Americans in this country."
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said his tribe has experienced similar impacts from opioid addiction.
"It has taken our moms. It's taken our dads. It's taken our brothers. It's taken our sisters away from us," he said. "These companies definitely have lied. They have betrayed our trust. They have not told the truth in regard to how these have been addictive and how they affect our people, our families."
Batton said the Choctaw Nation filed its lawsuit in hopes of getting money to restore families and help with the "prevention, intervention and treatment" of opioid addiction.
The pharmaceutical manufacturers named as defendants in the lawsuit are: Purdue Pharma LP, Purdue Pharma Inc., The Purdue Frederick Company, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., Allergan PLC, Watson Laboratories Inc., Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc., Watson Pharma Inc., Actavis LLC, Actavis Pharma Inc., Actavis PLC, Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.