Judge denies dismissal of local opioid lawsuit

Rain Smith • May 8, 2018 at 2:58 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — A lawsuit Northeast Tennessee prosecutors filed against opioid manufacturers can now move forward, thanks to a Tuesday court ruling. 

The defendants had sought dismissal of claims leveled in June by district attorneys in Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties. The local prosecutors want injunctions and financial compensation for the region’s opioid “epidemic.”

According to a press release sent on behalf of the plaintiffs, Second Judicial District Chancellor E.G. Moody has now denied the opioid producers' motions to dismiss, thus opening the way for litigation. 

The district attorneys’ lawsuit is being handled by Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings. A Tuesday statement from managing partner J. Gerard Stranch notes: "The Northeast Tennessee region has suffered terrible consequences as a result of the opioid epidemic, which has been fueled by the actions of Purdue Pharma and other defendants. We are committed to holding those companies accountable for their actions, and to returning any financial settlement to the communities dealing with the aftermath of their actions.”

Besides Purdue Pharma, other defendants in the suit are Mallinckrodt PLC, Endo Pharmaceuticals and three convicted opioid dealers.

Along with the local district attorneys, the lawsuit names “Baby Doe” as a plaintiff. The baby’s Sullivan County mother was reportedly addicted to opioids, and he was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Similar lawsuits filed by state prosecutors are pending elsewhere across Tennessee. Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus has spearheaded the efforts in our region.

“The nine counties represented in this suit have experienced an enormous influx of opioids over the past several years, stemming from the overprescribing and diversion of pills,” Staubus said in a news release. “The resulting illegal drug market that now flourishes in our region has led to huge increases in overdose deaths and babies born addicted to opioids. The defendants knowingly contributed to and participated in the illegal drug market at the expense of families and communities throughout our region. We want them to be held legally and financially accountable here in Northeast Tennessee, where the damage has been done.”

In March, Tennessee 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. His office filed motions to intervene in such cases but later entered an order to withdraw the intervention as part of a “joint commitment to the people of Tennessee.”

The local prosecutors’ lawsuit seeks financial damages from opioid manufacturers resulting from their alleged “breaches of statutory and common law.” It 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.

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.

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