Lieff Cabraser Civil Justice Blog
Lieff Cabraser Files Opioid Harm Lawsuit

Lieff Cabraser, Sonosky Chambers, and Zwerling Schachter File Class Action RICO Lawsuit on Behalf of Alaska Tribes Against Drug Manufacturers and Distributors for False and Deceptive Marketing and Improper Distribution of Dangerous Prescription Opioid Drugs

Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Asa’Carsarmiut Tribe, Akiak Native Community, Native Village of Port Heiden, and Native Village of Afognak Unite to Seek Justice from opiate drug distributors and manufacturers for worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history and unnecessary Alaska Native and American Indian opioid deaths across Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—(BUSINESS WIRE)—On behalf of Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Asa’Carsarmiut Tribe, Akiak Native Community, Native Village of Port Heiden, and the Native Village of Afognak, the law firms of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, Sonosky Chambers Sachse Miller & Monkman, LLP, and Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, LLP filed a RICO racketeering lawsuit on November 16, 2018 in federal court in Anchorage against Endo Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva, Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, Watson Pharmaceuticals, Actavis, Insys, Mallinckrodt, AmerisourceBergen, Health Mart Systems, Walgreen Co., Albertson’s, CVS, the Kroger Co. and related entities who bear responsibility for the unprecedented destructive opioid epidemic raging across the U.S. and in the affected Alaska Native communities.

“It is long past time these companies were held accountable for the destruction they have brought to our Alaska Native communities,” stated Mike Williams, Sr., member, Tribal Council of the Native Village of Akiak. “The deceptive practices these companies use to drain our people of money and their lives must be stopped.”

Tribal suits over opioid deaths and staggering costs were first filed in early 2017. Since then, more than 60 Native American Tribes have filed suits, and these cases have joined up with over 1,100 other cases pending in federal court in Ohio against dozens of companies across the opioid drug industry. At least 30 states, including Alaska, have also filed lawsuits.

The class action complaint in today’s tribal lawsuit asserts two categories of claims.  First, the complaint asserts that the pharmaceutical manufacturers of prescription opioid drugs engaged in a massive false marketing campaign to drastically expand the market for such drugs and their own market share thereof.  Second, the complaint asserts claims against numerous entities in the prescription opiate supply chain that reaped enormous financial rewards by refusing to monitor and restrict the improper distribution of these drugs.

The complaint alleges the named companies engaged in a vast scheme of false and deceptive prescription opioid drug marketing – a campaign that exploded the market for such drugs along with the companies’ share of that expanded market by convincing physicians, hospitals, and patients that these opioid drugs were safe for long-term use despite significant contrary evidence showing the drugs are ineffective in treating chronic pain and highly addictive. The complaint further alleges these companies engaged in a widespread supply chain scheme that reaped massive financial rewards by refusing to adequately monitor and restrict the improper distribution of these lethal, addictive drugs.

The epidemic caused by prescription opioid drugs has taken such a heavy toll in Alaska that Governor Bill Walker has had to declare a public health crisis and issue a Declaration of Disaster Emergency for the State. As the Governor noted in this Declaration, by 2012 the prescription opioid overdose death rate was more than twice that of the national death rate. Indeed, this epidemic is so widespread and pervasive that for the first time in recorded history, the life expectancy for Americans has decreased since the drugs flooded the U.S. market. These drugs are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.

Native Americans, including Plaintiffs’ citizens and patients, have been significantly impacted by this unimaginable epidemic. As noted in the Complaint, American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses.  According to the U.S. Indian Health Service’s Chief Medical Officer, “American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2015 and the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths over time from 1999-2015 compared to other racial and ethnic groups.” As if that weren’t bad enough, the opioid epidemic resulting from Defendants’ conduct has injured even the youngest members of Indian tribes.  In 1992, in the United States, only 2% of pregnant women admitted for drug treatment services abused opioids. By 2012, opioids accounted for 38% of all drug treatment admissions of pregnant women. Over this time period, the drug-related death rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives increased more than 500 percent.  Pregnant American Indian women are up to 8.7 times more likely than pregnant women from other groups to be diagnosed with opioid dependency or abuse, and in some communities more than one in 10 pregnant American Indian women have a diagnosis of opioid dependency or abuse.

The complaint alleges that the myriad defendants worked to conceal facts and disseminate a vast range of falsehoods relating to opioid drugs through multiple channels, including direct marketing, paying key opinion leaders to deceptively promote opioid use, through continuing medical education programs, through “branded” advertising to doctors and consumers and “unbranded” advertising to promote opioid use for chronic pain without FDA review, and by funding, editing, and distributing publications that supported these and other misrepresentations. In doing so, the complaint alleges the defendants deliberately disregarded their duties to maintain effective controls and to identify, report, and take steps to halt suspicious orders. The complaint asserts that their conspiracy to engage in this wrongful conduct enabled them to benefit both independently and jointly in their schemes relating to the promotion, sale, and distribution of opioid drugs.

As further detailed in the complaint, this crisis was precipitated by the defendants who manufacture, sell, and market prescription opioids. Through massive marketing campaigns premised on false and incomplete information, these entities engineered a dramatic shift in how and when opioids were prescribed by the medical community and used by patients. Relentlessly, methodically, and most importantly untruthfully, these prescription opioid drug manufacturers and distributors asserted that the risks of addiction were low when opioids were used to treat chronic pain, and overstated the benefits and trivialized the risks of long-term opioid drug use.  On the supply side, the crisis was fueled and sustained by those involved in the supply chain of opioids, including manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies, who failed to maintain effective controls over the distribution of prescription opioids, and who instead actively worked to evade such controls.

The plaintiffs in this suit are federally-recognized Alaska Native tribes with thousands of members, all of which provide medical, dental, behavioral health, chemical dependency, wellness, physical therapy, optometry, pharmacy support, and traditional healing services to their members and communities.

The complaint asserts claims under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), as well as claims for fraud, public nuisance, unjust enrichment, negligence, unfair competition under the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, product liability, and civil conspiracy. It seeks damages that include the tribal organizations’ healthcare and medical care costs, additional therapeutic costs, drug purchase costs, costs of training, preparing, and providing first responders, mental health services, as well as losses caused by the diversion of limited health care funds to address the opioid epidemic. The complaint also seeks treble damages, equitable relief and injunctive relief, including an order enjoining any further violations of RICO, enjoining the future improper marketing of opioids, enjoining other wrongful conduct, and forfeiting the defendants’ ill-gotten profits.

Read a copy of the Alaskan tribal entities opioids complaint.

About Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP

Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP is an 87-attorney law firm with offices in San Francisco, New York, Nashville, and Seattle. Lieff Cabraser has filed opioid-related cases on behalf of counties and cities within California, Florida, Tennessee, and Washington, and also serves on the Court-appointed Plaintiffs’ Executive and Settlement Committees and the Tribal Committee in the federal Opioids multidistrict litigation. Lieff Cabraser represents tribes, cities and counties, union plans, and others who have suffered devastating economic losses in battling an Opioid crisis of the defendants’ making. The firm has recovered substantial economic losses for government entities, businesses and individuals in cases including the Tobacco litigation, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill litigations, and the Neurontin RICO litigation.

About Sonosky Chambers Sachse Miller & Monkman, LLP

Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP represents Native American tribes and tribal organizations across the United States in trial and appellate litigation. The firm’s attorneys have handled some of the most important Indian law cases to come before the Supreme Court, including recent victories which led to the recovery of nearly $2 billion against the United States on behalf of tribal governments and governmental health and social service providers. The firm represents two dozen Tribes and intertribal organizations in connection with the National Opioid Litigation, including the Navajo Nation and the bellwether tribal plaintiff the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and it also brought the first tribal opioid case against the pharmaceutical industry (McKesson v Hembree). The firm’s partners sit on the six-member Plaintiff’s Tribal Committee in the Opioid Litigation.

About Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, LLP

Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, LLP was formed on January 1, 1985. Courts have selected Zwerling, Schachter many times as lead counsel in antitrust, RICO, securities, and consumer class actions in state and federal courts. The firm also represents tribes and governmental entities in actions seeking to redress corporate misconduct. The firm is counsel for a number of Tribes and Native Villages on the West Coast and Alaska in the National Opioid Litigation, including the Native Villages of Port Heiden, Akiak, and Afognak, the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe of Mountain Village, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes in Northern California, and the Swinomish Tribe in Washington.

Source/Contacts

Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
Elizabeth J. Cabraser, 415-956-1000
ecabraser@lchb.com

or

Sonosky Chambers Sachse Miller & Monkman, LLP
Lloyd B. Miller, 907-258-6377
907-229-6377 (cell)
lloyd@sonosky.net

or

Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, LLP
Dan Drachler, 206-223-2053
ddrachler@zsz.com