US Opioid Crisis: Native American Tribes Reach $590 Million Settlement | Court News

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Three US drug distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson agree to resolve tribal claims over the opioid epidemic.

The three largest drug distributors in the United States and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson have agreed to pay $590 million to resolve claims by Native American tribes that the companies fueled an opioid epidemic in their communities, according to court documents.

The filing in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Ohio, outlines details of the settlements with Johnson & Johnson and distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Tribal settlements are part of more than $40 billion in settlements, penalties and fines incurred over the years by companies for their role in the opioid epidemic that has swept the United States.

Drugs, including prescription ones like OxyContin and illicit ones like heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl, have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths across the country over the past two decades.

Many American tribes have been hit hard by the addiction and overdose crisis. A study cited in the settlement found that in 2015, Native Americans had the highest per capita opioid overdose rate of any population group.

More than 400 tribes and intertribal organizations representing approximately 80% of Indigenous citizens have filed opioid lawsuits. All federally recognized tribes will be able to participate in the newly filed settlements, even if they have not filed opioid lawsuits.

Under the deal, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson will pay $150 million over two years and distribution companies will contribute $440 million over seven years. Each tribe would decide whether or not to participate. The bulk of the money is intended to help tribes deal with the harms of the outbreak in their communities by funding treatment and other programs.

Johnson & Johnson reported net income of $20.8 billion in 2021.

The recently announced deal is separate from a $75 million settlement between the Cherokee Nation and the three distribution companies reached last year before a trial.

The same four companies are nearing the final stages of approving settlements worth $26 billion with state and local governments across the United States. They have until the end of the month to decide whether enough government entities have signed on to pursue the deal.

This proposed settlement did not cover lawsuits and potential claims from the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Native villages, which have long experienced drug overdose death rates higher than the national average.

Opioid addiction and deaths are a national problem in the United States. In Washington, DC, a recent spate of overdose deaths, potentially due to illegal fentanyl, has local authorities worried.

More than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed — mostly by state, local and tribal governments seeking to hold companies accountable for the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuits accuse distributors of lax controls that have allowed massive quantities of addictive painkillers to be diverted into illegal channels, and drugmakers, including J&J, of downplaying the risk of addiction in their marketing of opioids. The companies deny any wrongdoing.

More than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in the 12 months ending April 2021, according to data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increase of nearly 30% of deaths.

Overdose deaths in 2020 soared to 93,000 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, eclipsing the 72,000 drug deaths reached the previous year, according to US data.

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