Last week in Kingsport Circuit Court, lawyers representing Endo Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt LLC sued 10 online black market websites, about two dozen defendants in drug distribution cases and previously convicted pill mill operators.The filing argues that these third parties are "actually responsible for the misuse and abuse rather than scapegoating certain pharmaceutical manufacturers."
Endo and Mallinckrodt were sued last year by prosecutors in Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties. Led by Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus, they seek injunctions and financial compensation for the region’s opioid “epidemic.”
The pharmaceutical companies' filing attempts to shift that blame to the third parties' illegal dealings, arguing that the prosecutors "cherry-picked" drug manufacturers "for their (presumed) deep pockets."
And if the district attorneys win any financial judgments against Endo and Mallinckrodt, last week's lawsuit hopes to make the illegal dealers kick in some of that money.
"This action has no merit legally or factually," Staubus told the Times News. "It is an attempt to shift responsibility from the pharmaceutical companies who created and perpetuated the problem to the communities that have suffered most from the opioid epidemic."
He added that law enforcement has made a concerted effort to prosecute drug dealers and pill mill operators — but they are just a piece of the region's opioid problem.
"Without the pharmaceutical companies' roles in the massive overprescription of these powerfully addictive drugs, we would not have the opioid epidemic we now suffer from," said Staubus.
In June of last year, district attorneys announced their lawsuit against several opioid manufacturers, filing it on behalf of the communities in their counties. They want financial damages for the manufacturers' alleged “breaches of statutory and common law.”
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to stop “the flood of opioids” into the region, while arguing that police departments, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers will bear the cost of the opioid crisis for years to come.
Statistics provided by the local prosecutors stated that between 2005 and 2015, drug overdose deaths increased by 250 percent in Tennessee. During 2015 in Sullivan County, 71.3 percent of all overdose deaths involved opioids, while opioids were directly involved in more than 100 deaths over the course of 2016. In the first few months of 2017, 48 of every 1,000 births in Sullivan County were reportedly drug-addicted babies.
Over the past year, several filings and motions have been made in the lawsuit — including May's unsuccessful attempt from the drug companies, including Purdue Pharma, to get the case dismissed.
And in March, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery asserted that the local district attorneys didn’t have the authority to sue drug manufacturers on behalf of the people of Tennessee. His office filed motions to intervene in such cases, but later entered an order to withdraw as part of a “joint commitment to the people of Tennessee.”
In May, Slatery filed his own lawsuit against Purdue in Knox County Circuit Court. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports it contained records from inside Purdue, including that salespeople made 100 Oxycontin calls to Tennessee doctors every day for years — even after promising they would stop pushing the drug.
As for any money obtained through the Sullivan County 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.
New motions in the lawsuit are expected to be heard next month.