Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan, which has represented a number of tribal nations in legal matters over the years, was among the first law firms to identify the opportunity for tribes to exercise their sovereignty by bringing suit against the companies that created and drove the opioid epidemic. In 2018, Robins Kaplan partners Tara Sutton, Holly Dolejsi and Tim Purdon filed a lawsuit against the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of three tribal nations in South Dakota.
Robins Kaplan ultimately represented 28 of the 418 tribes that filed suit similar to lawsuits filed by attorneys general, state, city and county governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors. In February 2022, the Tribal Leadership Committee — led by the Robins Kaplan team — agreed to a $589 million settlement against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and the three largest national drug distributors.
Subsequent settlements with other defendants has increased the Tribal Leadership Committee’s settlement amount to nearly $1 billion, Sutton said. The agreement calls for the defendants to pay the settlements more rapidly than they are paying settlements to other governmental entities. Sutton said one tribe they represent was already building an addiction treatment facility, and the settlement funds will cover a significant amount of the loans for that project.
Robins Kaplan partner Tim Purdon told Minnesota Lawyer that this is the first time in history that tribal nations in these numbers have participated in nationwide mass tort litigation at this scale.
Sutton, who was on the trial team representing the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota that reached a historic $6.5 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998, recalled that tribes did not have a separate deal in that case.
“This is the most personally rewarding case that I have had in my 30 years as an attorney,” Sutton said. “I’ve been doing mass tort litigation for a long time and tribal entities have not had a seat at the table. We don’t want a tragedy like this to happen again, but if it does, we hopefully can replicate what happened … in the future.”
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