Tennessee attorney general backs off challenge to local opioid lawsuit

Rain Smith • Apr 13, 2018 at 10:58 AM

KINGSPORT — After recently getting pushback from the state over their lawsuit against drug manufacturers, local district attorneys are now free to pursue injunctions and financial compensation related to the region’s alleged opioid “epidemic.”

On Friday morning in Kingsport Chancery Court, a representative of the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office entered an order to withdraw the previous motion to intervene in the local litigation. A statement read by Steven Hart, special counsel for the state attorney general, added that the move is part of a “joint commitment to the people of Tennessee” and recognizes state and local cooperation is essential to battling the opioid crisis.

“I’m glad to see all of you were able to resolve this issue,” replied Judge E.G. Moody. “I thought it was something that could be resolved and should be resolved.”

Outside the courtroom, Hart declined to elaborate on what prompted the state office to let prosecutors in Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties pursue their lawsuit. In a March motion to intervene, Attorney General Herbert Slatery asserted that the district attorneys didn’t have the authority to sue drug manufacturers on behalf of the people of Tennessee.

Slatery also noted that he is leading a coalition of 40 states in an investigation of opioid manufacturers and distributors. That litigation is pending in Cleveland, with settlement discussions ongoing.

“We’re in the best position to handle a lawsuit like this,” said Barry Staubus after Friday’s announcement. “We are in our communities where the problem is.”

Added Dan Armstrong, District Attorney General for Hawkins County, “I’ve told people I didn’t want a judge in Ohio deciding this issue. It needs to be a judge and jury in Tennessee.”

Nashville law firm Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings is handling the local opioid lawsuit for the district attorneys, along with similar cases for prosecutors across the state. Hart told the Times-News that Slatery’s office has decided not to intervene in those cases either.

“This agreement demonstrates cooperation and mutual support between the attorney general and district attorneys general to utilize our available resources in efforts to effectively respond to this challenge,” Hart said in Kingsport court.

During a June press conference at Johnson City’s Niswonger’s Children’s Hospital, Staubus outlined plans to sue three opioid manufacturers. The lawsuit was later expanded to include a handful of alleged “pill mill” proprietors and doctors.

The suit also named “Baby Doe” as a plaintiff. His Sullivan County mother was reportedly addicted to opioids; thus, he was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The prosecutors’ lawsuit seeks judgment against three opioid manufacturers for damages resulting from “breaches of statutory and common law,” along with an injunction to stop “the flood of opioids” into the region. It argues that police departments, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers will bear the cost of the opioid crisis for years to come.

As for any money obtained through litigation, Staubus envisions it being overseen by a community committee. Organizations, officials or individuals could then make requests for funds to fight the opioid crisis, with money awarded like grants to various programs, be it for treatment, education or staffing.

A motion by opioid manufacturers to dismiss the lawsuit is expected to be heard next month.

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