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S.D. tribes sue pharmaceutical companies for 'creating the opioid epidemic'

In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, with more than 60,000 people killed by drug overdoses in 2016.

Three South Dakota tribes are suing more than 20 national pharmaceutical companies for contributing to a growing opioid problem in South Dakota.

According to a case filed Tuesday, Jan. 9, in federal court, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate are suing 24 companies for allegedly promoting the misuse of opioid pain medications and "creating the opioid epidemic."

The tribes believe the companies purposely promoted misuse of opioids to make "billions of dollars," according to court documents, while the tribes have been "overwhelmed" by costs associated with opioid addiction and treatment.

The "epidemic" contributes to immense costs for the tribes due to increased need for counseling and rehabilitation services, treatment of infants born with opioid-related medical conditions, welfare and foster care for children whose parents are addicted to opioids, law enforcement and public safety, according to the lawsuit. There is also concern about the costs of lost productivity of tribal members.

The tribe alleges that for several years the companies intentionally flooded the market with opioids and false statements designed to persuade doctors and patients that prescription opioids pose a low risk of addiction.

"Enough doses of opiates were prescribed to South Dakotans in 2015 to medicate every South Dakota adult around-the-clock for 19 straight days," the more than 100-page filing reads.

According to a press release on the Robins Kaplan LLP website, the national firm is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. The legal team includes former United States Attorney for South Dakota Brendan Johnson and former United States Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon.

"During the six years I spent as U.S. attorney in South Dakota, I saw firsthand the crippling impact the opioid epidemic has had in South Dakota communities, particularly in Indian country," Johnson said in an interview. "This lawsuit is an attempt to try to begin addressing that epidemic and help these communities heal."

In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, with more than 60,000 people killed by drug overdoses in 2016.

The statistics balloon when looking at tribal communities. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control reported one in 10 Native Americans over the age of 12 used prescription pain medicine for nonprescription purposes, compared to one in 20 white people.

Each tribe alleges the pharmaceutical companies did not take enough steps to prevent the spread of opioid addiction by not reporting suspicious orders and failing to inform users of the risks associated with the use of prescription opioids. Additionally, the tribes believe the companies named in the lawsuit streamlined marketing plans to ensure deceptive messages were consistent.

The tribes request a jury trial, at a date yet to be determined.

If the tribes win the case, they ask for reimbursement for damages in an amount to be determined, the court to prohibit the companies from continuing "wrongful conduct" and more.

Tuesday's filing adds to a list of approximately 200 similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies nationwide, Johnson said, but the tribes' lawsuit is the first of its kind in South Dakota.

"I think, as new information about the opioid epidemic comes to light, we'll see more and more of these cases," Johnson said. "The public's awareness has been raised and that's some of the reason you're seeing these and will likely continue to."

The Flandreau Tribe is located in Moody County; the Rosebud Tribe in Todd, Mellette, Tripp, Gregory and Lyman counties; and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in Codington, Day, Grant, Marshall and Roberts counties.