Days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a landmark opioid ruling, civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons says the recent decision strengthens the ongoing lawsuit against the city of Tulsa over its role in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
On Tuesday, the state’s High Court tossed out a 2019 ruling in an opioid case against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson worth $465 million.
In a 5-1 decision, the Court found that the company can’t be held liable for Oklahoma’s opioid crisis.
Previously, state District Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of the state of Oklahoma. It argued the pharmaceutical company had created a “public nuisance” with its marketing of prescription drugs.
“The court allowed public nuisance claims to address discrete, localized problems, not policy problems,” the Oklahoma justices stated.
Reparations lawsuit against city of Tulsa
Meanwhile, the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, led by attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, is using the same public nuisance law in a reparations lawsuit. It names the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the Oklahoma National Guard, and other entities. It accuses them of being responsible for the loss of life, property, and generational wealth perpetuated against the Black community of Historic Greenwood, home to the original Black Wall Street.
“The Court held that a public nuisance cannot arise out of the marketing, manufacturing, and distribution of a lawful product, and it made clear that public nuisance must stem from a criminal act or a physical injury to property that renders an entire neighborhood uninhabitable,” Attorney Solomon-Simmons stated in a press release.
Notably, the lawsuit includes the three last known living survivors of the Massacre as plaintiffs, along with others. “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, who remembers the terror on May 31 through June 1st of 1921, celebrated her 107th birthday on November 10.
“We cannot imagine anything more criminal or offensive than the murder, arson, looting, domestic terrorism, and ongoing violations of state and federal law, all of which have resulted in the literal destruction of the prosperous, and well-defined, Black neighborhood in Tulsa,” Solomon-Simmons added.
City aided and abetted 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
According to the Tulsa Historical Society, upwards of 300 Black men, women and children were massacred in 1921 when a White mob stormed the wealthiest Black community in the country. Infuriated by a Tulsa newspaper account of an encounter between Sarah Page and Dick Rowland in an elevator of a downtown building, the mob’s violent actions left the vast majority of Greenwood’s roughly 12,000 residents homeless.
Deputized by the city of Tulsa, encouraged by local media, and aided by planes dropping bombs on the community, White citizens burned and destroyed 35 square blocks in a matter of hours. While armed Black men in Greenwood, fresh from their tours in the World War, bravely defended their community as long as they could, they were incredibly outnumbered.
In the aftermath, the city of Tulsa withdrew responsibility by turning over relief efforts to the Red Cross to help the community rebuild and attempted to rezone the area to confiscate land and discourage residents from rebuilding their homes. The National Guard forced men to work manual labor as thousands of remaining Greenwood residents toiled in detention centers for up to 18 months. They were only able to leave if a White person vouched for them.
Greenwood fights back
Despite the tragedy, Greenwood residents began to rebuild the community from scratch just months later, achieving a rebirth of Black Wall Street for years to come. However, due to future city actions, including urban renewal and the construction of a highway that cuts directly through the historic Black community, residents in north Tulsa now suffer disparities in health, affordable housing, policing, wealth, income and more, according to the city’s own data.
The city of Tulsa has refused to comment on the ongoing lawsuit. However, the recent press release from Justice for Greenwood indicates the city is attempting to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis that it isn’t an appropriate filing.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling also makes exceptionally clear that public nuisance claims share no ground with traditional tort claims, as the Supreme Court declared, ‘an action for abatement of a nuisance is equitable in nature.’ This declaration defeats one of the Defendants’ central arguments.”
A tort claim is essentially a claim brought against one person who has financially, emotionally or physically harmed another person. Meanwhile, Attorney Solomon-Simmons is using a public nuisance argument found in Oklahoma state law.
“A nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission…annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others.” Oklahoma State Statute 501 reads.
For its part, the city of Tulsa has expanded economic development in Greenwood in recent years and apologized for its role in the massacre. Yet, it has thus far refused to accept financial liability for the massacre. The vast majority of funds that have gone to support the community comes from private donors.
Greenwood attorney’s one-of-a-kind reparations lawsuit uses public nuisance law
Ultimately, previous attempts to sue the city for reparations have failed due to the statute of limitations. With this in mind, Attorney Solomon-Simmons decided to pursue the public nuisance argument, which hasn’t before been used to argue for reparations.
“A public nuisance is one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon the individuals may be unequal.”
While Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum has told Vice that taxpayers today shouldn’t pay for a crime that took place 100 years ago, Oklahoma’s public nuisance law appears to indicate that Solomon-Simmons’ lawsuit has standing to move forward.
“The abatement of a nuisance does not prejudice the right of any person to recover damages for its past existence…No lapse of time can legalize a public nuisance, amounting to an actual obstruction of public right,” the law states.
Following the recent opioid ruling, attorney Solomon-Simmons filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority “requesting that Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall grant him the opportunity to fully brief the J&J Decision and schedule a hearing on the matter.”
Attorney Solomon-Simmons expressed regret that the ruling negatively affects Oklahomans impacted by the opioid crisis. Yet, he and other attorneys working to bring justice to Greenwood say they’re encouraged by what the ruling means for their reparations lawsuit.
For more information on the ongoing legal battle for restitution, visit JusticeforGreenwood.org.