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Cherokee Nation lawsuit to become test case in search for global solution to expansive opioid litigation

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Ongoing coverage: Oklahoma opioid trials

This Aug. 29, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of Oxycodone pills. [AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File]
This Aug. 29, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of Oxycodone pills. [AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File]

The Cherokee Nation's lawsuit against opioid distributors and pharmacies has been sent back to federal court in Muskogee where it is expected to become a bellwether test case in efforts to find a global solution to thousands of lawsuits filed over this nation's opioid epidemic.

This is a "good thing," said Sara Hill, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation. "We want our day in court. That's why we filed the lawsuit. ... We're looking forward to getting a chance to put our case on."

The Cherokee Nation's lawsuit against Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and other major drug pharmacies and distributors had been just one of nearly 2,700 cases against opioid manufacturers, pharmacies and distributors that were bogged down in a federal multi-district case in Ohio. The cases had been consolidated there in an effort to conserve judicial resources by eliminating duplication.

That changed Wednesday when a judicial panel ordered the Cherokee Nation case and a City and County of San Francisco opioid case moved back to federal courts in Oklahoma and California, respectively.

The idea behind the moves is to get representative samples of certain types of opioid cases to trial as soon as possible so a track record can be established as to how similar cases might be resolved by courts.

Opioid distributors argued against making the Cherokee Nation lawsuit a bellwether case.

They contended that the trial might be impacted by a pending Supreme Court appeal of a verdict in an earlier nonjury case that the state of Oklahoma tried against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries in Cleveland County District Court.

That earlier case, which also was viewed as groundbreaking, resulted in District Judge Thad Balkman ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay $465 million to help abate Oklahoma's opioid crisis.

In the Cherokee Nation's federal lawsuit, the tribe accuses pharmacies and distributors of fueling the opioid epidemic in their tribal territory by habitually turning "a blind eye to known or knowable problems in their own supply chains."

"Between 2003 and 2014, there were over 350 opioid-related deaths within the Cherokee Nation," the tribe said. "For adults within the Cherokee Nation, overdose deaths now outnumber deaths due to car accidents."

Hill said the judge overseeing the consolidated cases in Ohio wanted a case involving an Indian tribe to go to trial because tribal cases differ in some respects from cases involving cities, states or counties.

"Indian Country has its own issues," she said. "Tribal citizens get health care from the Indian Health Service − a lot of them do."

There are also jurisdictional issues that must be resolved with tribes, she said.

"Our data shows that Indian Country is more likely to be negatively impacted by opioid addiction than other races are," Hill said.

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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