The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and Knox County have waded into the legal fight over the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic, arguing that the Native American people and the county’s budget are suffering at the hands of the nation’s prescription drugmakers and sellers.
The pair filed separate lawsuits in federal court in Omaha against 25 defendants, including Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, Purdue Pharma, which makes the multibillion-dollar seller OxyContin, and Johnson & Johnson.
The lawsuits are the latest among hundreds nationally attempting to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the country’s widespread opioid problems. The two suits are believed to be Nebraska’s first on the matter, said David Domina, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
But already in Ohio, 565 lawsuits from across the country have been moved to a single federal judge’s docket, and settlement negotiations are underway. The defendants deny wrongdoing and say they are actively involved in fighting opioid addiction.
The Nebraska lawsuits argue that the defendants caused the public health crisis by recklessly manufacturing and distributing opioids.
The Ponca Tribe’s lawsuit says the crisis is killing Native American people and causing havoc and destruction in the lives of those addicted. Knox County’s lawsuit says more than 95 percent of people jailed in the county test positive for illegal drugs, including opioids and opioid-laced marijuana, while public health, law enforcement and emergency budgets are being taxed by opioid dependency. Knox County is located in northeast Nebraska along the South Dakota border.
Domina said opioid addiction is the nation’s biggest public health crisis in 100 years — since an epidemic of the plague.
He said it was important for the plaintiffs to “stand up, step forward and speak out.” If the hundreds of cases nationally move to a settlement or judgment, Domina said political subdivisions across Nebraska will need to be involved in the litigation.
“I didn’t want Nebraska left out,” he said, acknowledging that he has discussed opioid litigation with an unspecified number of other political subdivisions.
Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, said opioid problems are affecting counties across the state, and some are considering retaining outside attorneys to file lawsuits. Dix said Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties are among those discussing that option.
Dix said the costs of opioid addiction are real for county governments. “It is still having a financial impact on all of our taxpayers,” he said.
The Douglas County Board has discussed hiring an outside attorney to get involved in litigation. But that is still under consideration, and no final decisions have been made, County Administrator Patrick Bloomingdale said.
An industry group called the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, through a statement, said people filing lawsuits are “trying to redirect blame through litigation” when they should be addressing root causes of the problem.
“The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” said a statement from John Parker, senior vice president of the alliance.
Purdue Pharma, on its website, says the opioid crisis is a “multifaceted public health challenge” and that, as a manufacturer, it has a responsibility to join the fight. In February, Purdue Pharma announced that it will no longer market opioids to doctors.
“We manufacture prescription opioids,” the company says in a letter about the crisis. “How could we not help fight the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis?”