Robins Kaplan LLP Announces Proposed $590M Opioid Settlement For Tribal Nation Clients

By Tara Sutton

March 2022

In January of 2018, Robins Kaplan LLP filed a lawsuit against the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of three Tribal Nations in South Dakota. It was one of the first complaints filed by a Tribe over the opioid epidemic. Hundreds of additional Tribes have now followed suit — along with cities, states, and counties — resulting in the largest piece of civil litigation in United States history. The unprecedented level of participation by Tribes is a testament to the painful suffering so many Tribes have endured because of the opioid epidemic in their communities.

Early in the litigation, Robins Kaplan LLP was appointed to serve on the plaintiffs’ Tribal Leadership Committee. In that capacity, Tara Sutton and Tim Purdon have tenaciously advocated for the firm’s Tribal clients and on behalf of all Tribes. Tara Sutton spent months participating in mediation sessions to reach a resolution that recognizes the disparate impact Tribes have suffered.

On the strength of this work, Robins Kaplan LLP is pleased to announce a proposed $439 million settlement of the national opioid litigation claims by Tribes brought against AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, Inc. (“Distributors”) and a proposed $150 million settlement of the national opioid litigation claims by Tribes brought against the following companies: Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc.; N/K/A Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (“Janssen”); Johnson & Johnson; and Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The proposed settlement, which must be agreed to by the sovereign governments of Tribes, comes at a critical time to address the addiction and prevention needs of residents, as drug overdose deaths in the U.S. rose nearly 30 percent in 2020, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Janssen has agreed to resolve the Tribal claims for $150,000,000, payable over two years. The Distributors resolved the Tribal claims for $439,964,500, payable over seven years. The agreement includes a provision by which all federally recognized Tribes will be eligible to participate in both settlements, regardless of whether the Tribe has previously filed suit against the settling Defendants. These two settlements are initial, partial settlements while Tribal opioid claims against several other Defendants remain pending in the consolidated multi-district litigation venued in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio.

“This initial settlement for Tribes in the national opioid litigation is a crucial first step in delivering some measure of justice to the Tribes and reservation communities across the United States that have been ground zero for the opioid epidemic,” said Tara Sutton, chair of Robins Kaplan LLP’s Mass Tort Group. Ms. Sutton acted as one of the negotiators for the plaintiffs’ Tribal Leadership Committee in the negotiations with the settling Distributors.

Tim Purdon, the co-chair of Robins Kaplan LLP’s American Indian Law and Policy Group, added, “At Robin Kaplan, we were one of the first to identify the opportunity for Tribes to exercise their sovereignty by bringing suit, just as state attorneys general did, against the companies that created and drove the opioid epidemic. This is the first time in history that Tribal Nations in these numbers have participated in nationwide mass tort litigation at this scale.” The Robins Kaplan LLP American Indian Law and Policy Group was co-founded by Purdon, the former United States Attorney for North Dakota, and Brendan Johnson, the former United States Attorney in South Dakota, when the two joined the firm in 2015.

The historic settlement reached by the Tribal Leadership Committee garnered national attention and was covered by CBS News, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, The Star Tribune, The Washington Post, and CNN.

“This initial settlement for Tribes in the national opioid litigation is a crucial first step in delivering some measure of justice to the Tribes and reservation communities across the United States that have been ground zero for the opioid epidemic.”

Tara D. Sutton

Partner

Chair, National Mass Tort Group;
Member of Executive Board

Timothy Q. Purdon

Partner

Co-Chair, American Indian Law and Policy Group;
Co-Chair, Government and Internal Investigations Group;
Co-Chair, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee

Brendan V. Johnson

Partner

Co-Chair, American Indian Law and Policy Group;
Co-Chair, Government and Internal Investigations Group
Member of the Executive Board