The Cherokee Nation lawsuit against opioid distributors and retail pharmacies has moved to Oklahoma state court.

The suit was originally filed in tribal court, but a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, saying the tribe lacked jurisdiction to file against the companies in its own court. But CN attorneys say jurisdiction shouldn't be an issue now, as the tribe's legal team has filed the suit in the District Court of Sequoyah County, part of the 14-county CN area.

The petition states the Sequoyah County court has jurisdiction because the defendants conducted business in or around Sequoyah County and throughout Oklahoma. It also claims the defendants purposefully directed their activities at Cherokee Nation and its citizens.

The petition charged McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. with causing and perpetuating the epidemic of opioid prescription drug abuse that is "devastating" individuals and families in the Cherokee Nation. The lawsuit seeks financial compensation for the health care, social services, law enforcement, and other significant costs the opioid crisis has imposed on the CN.

“The defendants prevented this case from being heard in the Cherokee Nation Tribal Court, but no matter where this case is heard the facts will clearly demonstrate the damage these defendants have inflicted on the Cherokee Nation and its people,” said CN Attorney General Todd Hembree.

The lawsuit demands that the companies change their behavior and meet "legal and moral obligations" to ensure that powerful prescription opioid painkillers are provided only to individuals with a legitimate medical need for the drugs.

“The defendants have delayed, but not avoided, a public examination of their role in creating the opioid epidemic that has caused devastating harm across the country – especially in the Cherokee Nation,” said William Ohlemeyer of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, counsel to the Cherokee Nation. “We are prepared to present our evidence in the Oklahoma state court and look forward to holding the defendants accountable for their wrongdoing. If the defendants believe they have done no wrong, there should be no reason for them to seek any further delay of this litigation.”

“The misconduct of these companies has fueled the opioid epidemic throughout our country, and the impact is particularly acute in the Cherokee Nation,” said Richard Fields of Fields PLLC, counsel to the Cherokee Nation. “We look forward to proceeding quickly so that justice is no longer delayed for the Cherokee Nation.”

Tribal officials say opioid distributors and retail pharmacies have a legal responsibility to monitor the flow of prescription opioid drugs, to recognize suspicious orders and the “red flags” that indicate these drugs are being diverted into illicit channels of distribution and use, and to not ship or fill suspicious orders or red flag prescriptions for the drugs.

Suspicious orders and red flags include pharmacy orders for opioids that increase suddenly or are disproportionate to the community served by the pharmacy; prescriptions presented by patients who live far from a pharmacy or that are written by physicians outside the community; multiple prescriptions from different doctors presented by the same patient; opioid prescriptions presented with prescriptions for other drugs, such as benzodiazepine, that are tell-tale signs of drug abuse; and patterns of employee theft. When suspicious orders or prescriptions for opioid drugs are filled, highly dangerous substances are diverted into the hands of unauthorized users and the illegal black market, fueling the opioid epidemic.

In 2015, prescription opioids killed 22,598 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health, and over 2.75 billion milligrams of opioids were distributed according to the DEA. An estimated 845 million milligrams – or approximately 360 to 720 pills per year for every prescription opioid user in the Cherokee Nation – were distributed in the 14 counties of the CN. Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, deaths from opioid-related overdoses more than doubled within the Cherokee Nation between 2003 and 2014. Overdose deaths outnumber deaths due to car accidents for adults.

This filing in Oklahoma comes after the defendants persuaded the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma to enjoin the case from proceeding in tribal court. The Cherokee Nation also filed a motion to dismiss its case in tribal court.


Compiled by staff for Tahlequah Daily Press, a CNHI News Service publication.

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