Ryan Burns / @ 11:18 a.m. / Health Care, Tribes

Yurok Tribes Files Federal Lawsuit Against Big Pharma Companies Over Opioid Epidemic

Oxycontin, marketed by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, crushed for snorting after the coating has been removed. | Wikimedia Commons.

The Yurok Tribe today filed a federal lawsuit against more than a dozen major pharmaceutical companies, alleging that they’re responsible for the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.

In the complaint, which you can read in full by clicking the link at the bottom of this post, the tribe says these pharmaceutical giants, including Purdue Pharma (manufacturer of OxyContin), Ortho-McNeil-Janssen and Johnson & Johnson, “systematically and repeatedly disregarded the health and safety of the public” in order to maximize profits from their addictive prescription painkillers.

The Yurok Tribe isn’t the first government agency to take aim at Big Pharma over opioids. Attorneys general in at least three states have filed similar suits, as have four counties in New York and two in California. These cases have parallels to suits filed against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, which eventually resulted in the largest civil-litigation settlement agreement in U.S. history.

The suit notes that, as the Outpost has reported, Humboldt County has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. Calling our region “one of America’s first and hardest hit regions by the opioid crisis,” the Yurok’s federal complaint notes that “Humboldt County has had crisis-level overdose rates for over a decade.”

The tribe is demanding a jury trial and is pursuing a RICO case against the pharmaceutical giants. RICO, which stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, has been used to tackle high-profile organized crime organizations including the Catholic Church, the Hells Angels and the Gambino crime family. RICO cases allow for criminal and civil penalties against organizations found guilty of racketeering, though they’re often difficult to prove.

In the press release below the tribe says today’s filing is the first step toward a jury trial, “where the corrupt actions of the accused will be presented for the world to see.”

From the Yurok Tribe:

The Yurok Tribe filed in federal court a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] case against the pharmaceutical giants that are alleged to be responsible for the surging opioid epidemic in the United States and on the Yurok Reservation.

The only difference between these companies and drug cartels is [their] protection from law enforcement and seemingly unlimited funds.

“Without these pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers, the widespread abuse of prescription pain pills on tribal lands and across the entire U.S. would never have reached the terrifying level it is at today,” said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s General Counsel and Yurok Tribal member. “The only difference between these companies and drug cartels is the fact that legal purveyors of prescription opioids have protection from law enforcement and seemingly unlimited funds to market and distribute to the masses their highly addictive drugs. There is not a single Yurok family that has not either directly or indirectly experienced the horrors of opiate addiction.”

The complaint, filed on behalf of the Tribe by Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, LLP and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that 20 defendants violated the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The defendants, ranging from Purdue Pharma to Johnson & Johnson, include both manufacturers and distributors of opiate-based drugs. The complaint alleges that defendants concealed important facts about the dangers of opioids and the costs to communities, such as that of the Yurok Tribe.  Also contained in the complaint are charges of false advertising, public nuisance and participating in unlawful, unfair, and/or fraudulent business practices. The Tribe decided to pursue the case after Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti, a longtime magistrate and Yurok Tribal member, first identified opiate addiction as a significant health and safety issue on the reservation and she has largely spearheaded this effort to hold the defendants accountable.

The Yurok Reservation, located in one of only a handful of places where the U.S. opioid crisis initially took root, occupies land in rural Northern California’s Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Humboldt County, one of the first counties in the entire nation to see lawfully produced prescription painkillers diverted for clandestine purposes, has had crisis-level overdose rates for over a decade. Much of this so-called medicine has made it to the reservation, which is evidenced by the number of inquiries the Tribe receives from those looking for opioid addiction treatment.

“For too long, the Yurok Tribe has been forced to contend with the deadly aftermath of the proliferation of opioids in society,” according to the complaint. “Opioid manufacturing and distributing companies systematically and repeatedly disregarded the health and safety of the public, including the Yurok Tribe.”

In the United States, 91 people die every day from opioid overdose and in 2016 opiates killed 42,000 US citizens, including disproportionately high numbers of Native Americans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In March 2, 2018, the CDCP announced the results of a yearlong study, which showed that commonly prescribed opioids produced less pain relief than over-the-counter, non-opioid drugs in patients suffering from serious back aches as well as hip or knee arthritis.

This filing represents the first step toward a jury trial in federal court, where the corrupt actions of the accused will be presented for the world to see.

“It is clear that we as a nation have been sold a bill of goods as it relates to opiate painkillers. These drugs have caused so much unnecessary heartache as well as the untimely deaths of many Native American and non-Indian people. The companies that produce, market and distribute them need to be held accountable,” concluded Cordalis. 

The Yurok Tribe is the largest federally recognized Indian tribe in California and has a reservation that straddles the Lower Klamath River, extending for one mile on each side of the river, from its entry into the Pacific Ocean to approximately 45 miles upriver to the confluence with the Trinity River. The Tribe’s major initiatives include: natural resources management, fisheries protection, watershed restoration, dam removal, condor reintroduction, cultural revitalization, language preservation and land acquisition.

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DOCUMENT: The Yurok Tribe v. Purdue Pharma, et al [pdf]



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