Northern Arapaho Tribe Sues Drug Companies, Citing Opioid Epidemic on Central Wyoming Reservation

Area of Expertise: Business Litigation

The Northern Arapaho Tribe sued several opioid manufacturers and  distributors in federal court Monday, claiming the companies knowingly caused a public health epidemic on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming by deceptively marketing and distributing the drugs.

The tribe has suffered “substantial loss of resources, economic damages, and damages to the health and welfare of its members,” attorneys for the tribe wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming.

The lawsuit states that child welfare and foster care costs related to parents with opioid addictions have skyrocketed, while law enforcement, health services, education and rehabilitation costs have also become overwhelming. It blames these tolls on the drug companies, citing a failure to control the supply of opioids in central Wyoming and reckless marketing schemes that put profits over public health.

“(A)lmost every tribal member has been affected,” the lawsuit states.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe also argued that opioid addiction has damaged the community in more holistic ways.

“The Tribe has … suffered substantial damages due to the lost productivity of tribal members, increased administrative costs, and the lost opportunity for growth and self-determination,” tribal lawyers wrote.

Impact across Indian Country

The Northern Arapaho join a host of tribes across the nation who have sued pharmaceutical companies in recent months, highlighting the disproportionate impact of the opioid epidemic in Indian Country.

Fremont and Hot Springs counties, where the Wind River Reservation is located, have an opioid prescription rate far above the national average of 66.5 per 100 people, according to the lawsuit. Fremont has a rate of 83.3 per 100 people and Hot Springs a rate of 98.1.

“Opioid addiction hits Indian Country harder than any other place or people in the United States today,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Co-Chairman Lee Spoonhunter said in a statement. “We brought this lawsuit to stop the destruction of lives here on the Wind River Reservation, and we encourage other Tribes to join us in this important effort.”

Spoonhunter declined an interview request.

Janet Abaray, an attorney with the firm Burg Simpson, which is representing the tribe, said that the Northern Arapaho lawsuit is likely be combined with some of the other suits filed by Indian tribes.

The National Indian Health Board has testified before Congress in recent weeks regarding opioid addiction in Indian County. Though not mentioned in the Northern Arapaho lawsuit, NIHB director Stacey Bohlen said that underfunding Indian Health Service, the federal program that offers free healthcare to members of recognized tribes, had contributed to the crisis.

“Instead of being referred for surgeries or simpler treatments, patients are often simply placed on prescription opioid medications to address their pain as they wait for treatment,” she said during a March hearing.

The 2018 federal budget, approved last month, appropriated $55 million for treating opioid issues on reservations.

Broad claims, few specifics

The Northern Arapaho lawsuit makes broad claims about the impact of opioid distribution on and near the Wind River Reservation, though it is light on specific details.

For example, it states that the opioid distributors should have known that “flooding the market in and around the Tribe with highly addictive opioids would allow opioids to fall into the hands of children, addicts, criminals, and other unintended users.”

Distributors “were aware of widespread prescription opioid abuse in and around the Tribe, but… they nevertheless persisted in a pattern of distributing commonly abused and diverted opioids in geographic areas — and in such quantities, and with such frequency that they knew or should have known these commonly abused controlled substances were not being prescribed and consumed for legitimate medical purposes,” the tribe’s attorneys wrote.

Instead of statistics regarding opioid addiction on the central Wyoming reservation, the lawsuit relies on broader data about Native Americans across the country. According to the lawsuit, 10 percent of American Indian teenagers and adults abused opioids, double the rate of white Americans. While the number of drug overdose deaths for all Americans increased over 200 percent from 1999 to 2015 it increased by more than 500 percent among Native Americans.

In Congressional testimony three years ago, Sunny Goggles of the White Buffalo Recovery Program on the Wind River Reservation said that various forms of substance abuse were having a devastating impact on the reservation.

“Families are torn apart, lives are lost, and personal injury is the result. In addition, private and public property is destroyed thus, creating a reflection of the community’s lack of self-esteem and pride,” Goggles said. He added that the Northern Arapaho Tribe was taking proactive steps to address the problems.

Voice in litigation

Abaray said while there were many ongoing lawsuits related to the culpability of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid epidemic, it was important for the Northern Arapaho Tribe to have a voice in the litigation.

“It’s important for the tribe to make sure that they’re included so that they get compensated and can take of their members,” Abaray said.

The lawsuit is seeking damages against the pharmaceutical companies partially through the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally used to bring down organized crime bosses during the 1970s.

The companies named are Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Allergan Sales, Watson Pharmaceuticals, Actavis Elizabeth, Mallinckrodt LLC, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.

The companies have denied wrongdoing in other lawsuits.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe is represented by both national plaintiff trial firm Burg Simpson and local attorneys from Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd.

— Rosenfeld, Arno. “Northern Arapaho Tribe Sues Drug Companies, Citing Opioid Epidemic on Central Wyoming Reservation.” Casper Star Tribune. April 3, 2018.