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Sullivan judge says localities off the hook in opioid crisis, sets timeline for records release

Rain Smith • Aug 7, 2018 at 4:54 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — It took more than four hours Tuesday for a judge to hear a stack of motions filed in a Sullivan County civil case against drug manufacturers, but local district attorneys will soon have 3.7 million pages of records regarding the sale, marketing and distribution of opioids in Tennessee.

Judge E.G. Moody also decided that cities and towns within Sullivan, Washington and Hawkins counties cannot be held accountable for the opioid epidemic, as sought by the defendants. He said the pharmaceutical companies could later move forward with litigation against convicted drug dealers, but those actions will be stayed pending the conclusion of the current case.

The lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt PLC and Endo Pharmaceuticals is spearheaded by Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus, working in conjunction with prosecutors in Hawkins and Washington counties. The drug companies had about 10 lawyers present in Sullivan County Chancery Court on Tuesday, five of whom spoke during the hearings.

Last month, attorneys representing Mallinckrodt and Endo filed lawsuits against dozens of criminal defendants in opioid cases, arguing that they and illegal online distributors are "actually responsible for the misuse and abuse rather than scapegoating certain pharmaceutical manufacturers." The drug companies sought that those individuals contribute to any future financial judgments against the opioid manufacturers.

On Tuesday, drug company attorneys repeatedly referenced the illegal dealers as the "rest of the story" in the opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, their previous motions blamed localities and officials within Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties for not doing enough to battle illegal opioid operations, suggesting they could also be held financially liable.

Moody dismissed the third-party complaints against the government agencies, while stating it was premature for drug companies to pursue money from convicted drug dealers.

The manufacturers were also given seven days to begin preparing documents for the local district attorneys’ representation, Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings. Managing partner J. Gerard Stranch is seeking 10 years of opioid records that the companies have for Tennessee, including the number of prescriptions written and if the manufacturers were aware of their drugs being diverted through illegal channels.

"Endo already has the records, it's a matter of burning them to a $5 flash drive and sending them to us," Stranch said.

Attorneys for the pharmaceutical companies stated nearly 4 million pages of those records have already been compiled. Moody gave the defendants 90 days to have them delivered to the district attorneys' representation.

The local prosecutors announced the lawsuit in June 2017 on behalf of the communities in their counties. They argued that a "flood of opioids" had put undue stress on police, schools, doctors, health insurance companies and the tax-paying public. Staubus added that about 5 percent of births in Sullivan County were drug-addicted babies, while 71 percent of drug overdoses in Sullivan County involved opioids.

The suit also names a fourth plaintiff, "Baby Doe." The child's Sullivan County mother was reportedly addicted to opioids, thus he was born with neo-natal abstinence syndrome.

Fourteen months after the initial lawsuit was filed, Stranch characterized the drug manufacturers’ motions as stalling tactics — adding that they were trying to make "a circus" out of the eventual trial.

"The companies have a lot of money and they hired good lawyers," said Stranch after Tuesday's hearing. "But their day of reckoning is coming. It won't be long before they are before a group of 12 Sullivan County citizens to answer for their actions."

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. He said money could then be awarded like grants to various programs, be it for treatment, education or staffing.

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