Mashantuckets filed federal suit against Purdue Pharma, others over opioid epidemic

Mashantucket — The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe quietly joined the legal fray over prescription opioids in June, filing a federal lawsuit against more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies, drug distributors and big-chain pharmacies in a bid “to protect the health, safety, and welfare” of the tribe's 1,100 members.

Thousands of government jurisdictions, including the state of Connecticut and other Indian tribes, have done the same over the last couple of years, setting the stage for what’s been billed as the biggest civil trial in U.S. history.

Jury selection in a so-called "bellwether" case that could have a bearing on those that follow has been scheduled this week in Cleveland.

The Mashantuckets’ suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Northern Ohio in accordance with an order consolidating such civil claims under the umbrella of National Prescription Opiate Litigation, names Stamford-based Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, the painkiller whose misuse allegedly has contributed to the national epidemic of opioid overdose deaths and addictions. Also among those named are manufacturers Cephalon, Endo, Allergan and Mallinckrodt; distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal and McKesson; and such retail pharmacies as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.

In amending the suit in August, the tribe added as defendants members of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, which has filed for bankruptcy protection.

“The Tribe has seen substantial increases in child welfare and social services costs associated with opioid addictions,” the Mashantuckets’ suit says. “Its health services have been significantly impacted and education and addiction therapy costs have substantially increased.”

More specifically, the suit seeks damages for costs associated with medical and therapeutic care the tribe has provided for patients suffering from opioid addiction; opioid prescriptions paid through the tribe’s health care system; and treatment of infants born with opioid-related medical conditions. It also cites costs associated with law enforcement and increased burdens on the tribe’s judicial system.

“Defendants’ actions … have also created a palpable climate of fear, distress, dysfunction and chaos among tribal residents where opioid diversion, abuse, and addiction are prevalent and where diverted opioids tend to be used frequently,” the suit says.

The tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, also claims it has suffered “substantial damages” in the form of lost casino revenue.

Tribes in California, the Dakotas, Florida, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Washington and other states also have lodged federal suits over prescription opioids.

In the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case, filed in White Plains, N.Y., a group that includes dozens of tribes and tribal support organizations is seeking the appointment of a committee of creditors to represent their interests. In a court filing, it cites a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that drug overdose deaths among Native Americans increased by more than 500 percent from 1999 to 2015, the largest percentage increase among all racial and ethnic groups.

“This morbid escalation is substantially due to overprescription of opioids,” the filing says.

"In 2017, Connecticut providers wrote 48 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons," the Mashantuckets’ suit says. “Many Americans, including Connecticuters and members of the Tribe, are now addicted to prescription opioids.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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