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ND tribes join lawsuit suing opioid distributors

GRAND FORKS -- The Spirit Lake, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain tribes in North Dakota have joined numerous counties and cities across the country in suing pharmaceutical companies that distribute opioids.

Law firm Robins Kaplan is representing 19 tribal nations from seven states in this effort, including Spirit Lake, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain.

Former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon, now a partner with Robins Kaplan, is representing the tribes in North Dakota.

The opioid epidemic has hit native populations at a disproportionate rate, Purdon said.

American Indians suffer the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses compared to any other race in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in 10 American Indians age 12 or older used prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes, according to data from the CDC. That is twice as much as their white counterparts, the national agency said.

From 2010 to 2014, Native Americans saw a 236 percent increase of deaths from heroin overdoses, the CDC said.

Purdon said 65 tribes from across the country are filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

When “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of cases are filed against the same defendants, Purdon said, judges will pick a few “bellwether cases” to represent all of the cases.

The Muscogee Creek Tribe in Oklahoma and and the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana were chosen as the “bellwether” cases to move forward. The results of these cases will drive the resolutions to be handed down in other, similar cases.

The complaints from Spirit Lake, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain list more than 10 pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, the company North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem filed a lawsuit against in May.

The complaints said North Dakota, especially in parts of the state near tribal communities, has very limited access to opioid treatment programs. The complaints also give examples of times when pharmaceutical companies and doctors misrepresented opioids as a nonaddictive drug.

“The thing that really hit home for me was that overdose rates in reservations don’t match up with the rest of the state they’re in,” Purdon said. “They match up with what’s going on in Appalachia, the ‘epicenter of the opioid epidemic.’”

Grand Forks County is also moving forward with a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma to recover damages the county has suffered from the opioid epidemic. Grand Forks city officials have not made a decision on whether or not to move forward with a similar lawsuit.