On July 24, Hawkins County commissioners will be asked to authorize the Greene County law firm of Jessee and Jessee to file a nuisance lawsuit in Knox County Federal Court on the county’s behalf seeking damages from companies that conduct wholesale distribution of opioids into Hawkins County.
This would be separate from the lawsuit filed last month against prescription narcotic manufacturers by Attorneys General Barry Staubus, Tony Clark and Dan Armstrong representing Northeast Tennessee’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts — including Hawkins, Sullivan, and Washington counties.
Attorney Crystal Jessee told the Hawkins County Public Safety Committee last week that similar federal lawsuits filed against distributors in West Virginia have been successful.
Jessee identified the top three likely defendants as AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Cardinal Health and McKesson.
Under the 1970 Substance and Abuse act, these three distributors have the duty to earmark and red flag any irregular distribution patterns, Jessee noted.
"They've not done that," Jessee told the committee. "McKesson was fined about 10 years ago to the tune of about $10 million and they didn't stop. Last year the federal government fined them to the tune of $150 million."
Jessee added, "We say once they get this distribution license they have an absolute duty to uphold the regulations under law, and they haven't done that. ... We come in and file a lawsuit stating you have caused a public nuisance in our county because you have not followed the letter of the law."
There was no information released regarding a dollar figure Hawkins County would be seeking.
Jessee did say, however, that her researchers have indicated that of Tennessee's 95 counties, Hawkins County has the 25th highest amount of damage caused by opioid addiction. Campbell County is number one.
In determining damages the lawsuit would look at what the county spent on dealing with opioid addiction via law enforcement and the court system; as well as the cost of implementing opioid education for children beginning in kindergarten; and the cost of implementing treatment and rehabilitation for addicts within the county.
"If a doctor prescribes you percocet or hydrocodone twice a day for seven days, if you take it as prescribed you are then 30 percent more likely to go back and ask for 90 days," Jessee told the committee. “If you do that, you’re 90 percent more likely to go back and ask for a year. Once you've been on it for a year you are 99 percent more likely to be an addict. They don't tell people this, just like they didn't tell people smoking was bad for you, even though it's legal."
Committee member John Metz asked why the lawsuit didn't go after the doctors as well.
Jessee said if they include doctors, that would open the defense up to bringing in every person prescribed the drugs to testify about why they were needed.
"Sticking with the distributors keeps the question simple," she said. "Is it a pubic nuisance or not. Did they violate the public distribution laws and what are our damages. Open it up to much more than that and we'll cloud the issues. We're going in front of a jury in East Tennessee and the last thing we want is to have doctors rolling in patients who may have cancer, or may be HIV positive, getting sympathy."
McMinn County, Bradley County, Hamblen County and Campbell County have already signed contracts with Jessee and Jessee to file an opioid lawsuit against distributors, and the law firm is awaiting decisions from the commissions in several other counties aside form Hawkins County, including Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Johnson, Greene, Cocke, Pickens, Gibson and Carter.
This is not a class action lawsuit, however. Each county lawsuit will be filed separately against wholesale distributors seeking damages under federal nuisance laws.
By filing the lawsuits separately, county by county, the commission would have the right to decide how any funds awarded to the county are spent.
There is no cost for the county to participate in the lawsuit, and Jessee said if there is a counterclaim her firm would be liable for the expenses.
If the lawsuit is successful, Jessee and Jessee would receive 30 percent of any amount awarded to Hawkins County, plus expenses.