A group of pharmaceutical companies and distributors agreed to pay $590 million to settle lawsuits connected to opioid addiction among Native American tribes, according to a U.S. court filing released Tuesday.
The agreement is the latest amid a deluge of litigation spawned by the U.S. opioid crisis, which has claimed more than 500,000 lives over the past 20 years and ensnared some of the largest firms in American medicine.
The companies involved in the latest agreement include Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and McKesson, according to a filing in an Ohio federal court by a committee of plaintiffs in the case.
Native Americans have "suffered some of the worst consequences of the opioid epidemic of any population in the United States," including the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdoses compared with other racial groups, according to the filing from the tribal leadership committee.
"The burden of paying these increased costs has diverted scarce funds from other needs and has imposed severe financial burdens on the tribal plaintiffs."
J&J, McKesson and the other two companies in the accord – AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health – previously agreed to a $26 billion global settlement on opioid cases.
J&J said Tuesday the $150 million it agreed to pay in the Native American case has been deducted from what it owes in the global settlement.
"This settlement is not an admission of any liability or wrongdoing and the company will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve," the company said.
It was unclear if the other companies would take their portion under the latest agreement from the global settlement.
'Measure of justice'
Robins Kaplan, a law firm negotiating on the behalf of the plaintiffs, said the agreement still must be approved by the Native American tribes.
"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 Sutton, an attorney at the firm, said in a statement.
Douglas Yankton, chairman of the North Dakota-based Spirit Lake Nation, said the money from the settlement would "help fund crucial, on-reservation, culturally appropriate opioid treatment services."
Steven Skikos, an attorney representing the tribes, told AFP they are pursuing claims against other drugmakers.
"This is hopefully the first two of many other settlements," he said.
All tribes recognized by the U.S. government, 574 in all, will be able to participate in the agreement, even if they have not filed lawsuits.
The settlement is separate from a prior agreement that resulted in $75 million in payments to the Cherokee Nation from three distribution companies, including McKesson.
Many of the lawsuits regarding the opioid crisis have centered on Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription painkiller blamed for causing a spike in addiction.
A judge in December overturned the company's bankruptcy plan because it provided some immunity for the owners of the company in exchange for a $4.5 billion payout to victims of the opioid crisis.
The litigation wave also has swamped pharmacies owned by Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, which a jury found in November bear responsibility for the opioid crisis in two counties in Ohio.