Hawkins Commission questions, approves opioid lawsuit

Jeff Bobo • Oct 24, 2017 at 10:00 PM


ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County Commission agreed Monday to move forward with an opioid "nuisance lawsuit" against narcotics distributors, but not before questioning a key attorney about the nature of expenses the law firm will receive along with one-third of the potential settlement.

This suit is seeking damages from opioid distributors and isn't connected to a lawsuit filed by area attorneys general earlier this year against opioid manufacturers, pharmacies and doctors.

Although the lawsuit contract was approved, it wasn’t unanimous with 14 in favor, two opposed (Jeff Barrett and Darrell Gilliam) and three abstaining (Syble Vaughan-Trent, Dawson Fields and Mike Herrell).

Crystal Jessee, of the Greene County firm of Jessee and Jessee, initially approached the commission in July with a proposed contract to represent Hawkins County in an opioid nuisance lawsuit.

Approximately 90 similar nuisance lawsuits have been or are being filed separately in counties across Tennessee, West Virginia and Ohio in a cooperative effort by various law firms.

In the original contract, the county wanted Jessee and Jessee to cover the cost of any potential counter-suit, but the firm wouldn't agree to that and it was stricken from the contract.

When asked if a counter suit was possible, County Attorney Jim Phillips told the commission, "You can't totally eliminate that possibility."

Jessee said she's not aware of any counter lawsuits ever being filed in this type of case.

Jessee: "We have 90 clients. We've filed 50 suits thus far. There's not been a counter suit."

The county commission also wanted a provision included in the contract that no locally owned pharmacies will be named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Phillips noted, however, that the other side can bring them in as third-party defendants.

And the amount of any potential settlement share that Jessee and Jessee will receive was increased from 30 percent in the original contract to 33.3 percent in the version presented to the commission Monday.

If they lose the lawsuit, Jessee and Jessee will absorb any expenses associated with the lawsuit, and there's no cost to the county.

If there is a payout, however, Jessee said the firm will recoup its expenses on top of the 33.3 percent. The lawsuit could last as long as seven years, and some commissioners were curious as to what those expenses will be.

"Attorney's fees are included in the 33.3 percent," Jessee said. "Those are out-of-pocket expenses such as filing fees, deposition expenses. It's just like if you were in a car wreck and you went to an attorney."

Jessee said that in a typical case, when expenses are included, the attorney ends up getting about 40 percent of the settlement.

It's not a class action. Each county is filing a separate lawsuit, although the firms representing those counties are working together and sharing information.

"We have an epidemic here," Jessee told the commission. "Our lawsuit is very specific. It is a public nuisance."

She added, "The three distributors have had all this data sending it to the federal government. What they've not done is earmark and red flag any irregularities in the distribution pattern. Had they done that, we would have known that they were sending tons of opioids into counties, more than the population rate can sustain. We're saying they created a public nuisance.”

The damage model is based upon damage to the sheriff's office and safety; the damage to the health providers, ambulances, emergencies; and the damage to the education system.

"We get the distribution patterns, and we look at the influx of services you had to sustain here in the county, which we all know are astronomical," Jessee said. "We ask that the jury award based upon the nuisance in this county."

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