A great deal of news coverage about America's decades-long opioid crisis tends to focus on rural white folks in states such as Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. But among the communities hardest hit by the epidemic, Native American tribes rank at the top. Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths among the Native population have risen almost sixfold — faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is no exception. In a federal lawsuit filed Friday against Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Walgreens, CVS, and other drug manufacturers, the Seminole community alleges it has been "ravaged by the opioid epidemic" and has "exhausted vast resources" trying to provide rehab and therapy to its addicted members.
"Thousands of tribal members, both young and old, have had their lives destroyed by opioid addiction," the complaint states. "Opioid addiction and overdose have killed many tribal members and... destroyed hundreds of Seminole families, leaving those who remain to pick up the pieces."
The lawsuit is only the latest in a series of legal complaints against the drug companies. In recent years, cities and states across the nation have filed roughly 2,500 suits accusing the manufacturers of creating the crisis. In February, South Florida's Miccosukee Tribe sued multiple drug manufacturers and distributors because it had spent tens of millions of dollars as a result of the epidemic, the tribe said.
The Seminole Tribe's lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Florida only two days before Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Legal experts say the bankruptcy declaration could freeze any lawsuits against Purdue and limit what victims could recoup from the company.
The Seminole suit accuses the drug companies of deceptive marketing that misrepresented the benefits and risks of opiate medication. Specifically, the tribe contends the companies knew or should have known their prescription medications would be diverted for abuse by Seminole members.
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"Defendants knew the dangers to public health and safety that diversion of opioids would create in the Seminole Community; however, Defendants intentionally and/or unlawfully failed to maintain effective controls against diversion," the complaint states.
The lawsuit also contains racketeering allegations claiming the drug companies were essentially an organized criminal enterprise.
"As a direct result of the RICO Defendants' fraudulent scheme, course of conduct, and pattern of racketeering activity, they were able to extract billions of dollars of revenue from the addicted American public," the tribe alleges.
To date, none of the companies has provided a formal response in court, and no hearings have been scheduled in the case. In its initial complaint, the Seminole Tribe demanded a jury trial.