'We're going to swing for the fences' — Northeast Tennessee brings unprecedented lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

Nick Shepherd • Updated Jun 13, 2017 at 6:32 PM

Three Northeast Tennessee counties have filed a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the production of narcotic pain killers because of the ongoing opioid epidemic in the region.

In a dramatic press conference held at Niswonger's Children's Hospital, which recently opened a unit dedicated to drug addicted babies, the district attorneys general for Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties announced the lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt PLC and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

Opioids produced by those companies include OxyContin, Roxicodone, Opana ER and other opioids.

Flanked by police officers from all over the region, Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus laid out the case for the lawsuit.

"Our state has the second-highest statewide opioid prescription rank in the United States," he said. "Northeast Tennessee has been hit worst in the state by the opioid addiction. And Sullivan County, in my opinion, is the epicenter of the epidemic."

Purdue denied the allegations in the 70-page lawsuit filed in Chancery Court in Sullivan County. The company said they share concern about the opioid crisis and were committed to working collaboratively for a solution.

"At Purdue, we have dedicated ourselves to working with policymakers, public health officials and law enforcement to address this public health crisis, which include developing abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone," the company said in a statement to the Times-News. "Addiction and drug abuse are multi-faceted problems that require multi-faceted solutions. Pointing fingers will not solve the problem, nor will it help those who are suffering. We urge all stakeholders to seize the opportunity to work together so that collectively we can address this crisis.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday demands judgment against the defendants for damages resulting from "breaches of statutory and common law." According to the lawsuit, police departments, schools, DA offices, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers of the state will bear the cost of this crisis for years to come. The suit seeks restitution from the companies and also seeks an injunction to stop "the flood of opioids" into Northeast Tennessee.

The opioid epidemic has reached crisis levels in Tennessee. Between 2005 and 2015, drug overdose deaths increased by 250 percent and now account for more early deaths in the state than car wrecks, suicides or homicides. During 2015 in Sullivan County, 71.3 percent of all overdose deaths in the county directly involved opioids.

Last year, opioids were directly involved in at least 106 deaths.

The opioid epidemic also involves infants, which the suit called a secondary epidemic. The number of babies born addicted to drugs, known as neo-natal abstinence syndrome, has increased tenfold from 2000 to 2010. In the first few months of this year, 48 out of every 1,000 births in Sullivan County were NAS babies.

NAS cases are so prevalent in the area, one drug-dependent baby is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, named "Baby Doe."

Baby Doe's mother, Mary, experimented with drugs and alcohol as a teenager when she would take opioids recreationally at a party or on the weekends. The lawsuit, which said Sullivan County was "awash in opioids,"  claims that because of the actions of the pharmaceutical companies, Mary quickly became addicted. Then she got into a serious car wreck in which she broke her ankle and legs and needed multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Mary was in extraordinary pain and was prescribed Lortab. She took her pills but was taking twice the amount her doctor prescribed, the lawsuit says.

Her addiction spiraled out of control and she began taking OxyContin and Roxicodone from other people. She was addicted for about four years when she found out she was pregnant with Baby Doe.

Baby Doe was hooked on opioids when he was born, his first experience in life was the pain of withdrawal, Staubus said. He cried excessively, arched his back and refused to eat. Staubus said the companies were directly responsible for fueling the environment Baby Doe was born into.

J. Gerard Stranch IV, managing partner at Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings, PLLC, illustrated the devastation of babies born addicted by holding up an orange pill bottle and shaking it.

"For many children, this is the rattle of their childhood," he said. "This is what they hear as babies. That is unacceptable."

Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt PLC and Endo Pharmaceuticals created the current crisis by creating a market that did not exist, the market of treating non-cancerous, non-life ending pain with opioids, Stranch said.

He said the companies were able to create this market by a fraudulent marketing campaign for doctors and the public that said the opioids they produced were non-addictive, not dangerous, not subject to abuse, would not create a tolerance to the drugs and would not subject users to withdrawals.

Stranch said the marketing campaign was a "smashing success." In 1997, Purdue had 670,000 prescriptions for OxyContin issued through the United States. In 2002, it was up to 6.2 million. In 2006, sales of OxyContin were at $800 million. By 2010, OxyContin was bringing in $3.1 billion a year. Staubus wants to pair this lawsuit with legislation at the state level. He said the state has to look out for the future of the state's children, families, friends, co-workers and neighbors.

"We've got to stop this unlimited prescribing of opioid drugs that are causing this problem," he said. "We've got to put some real curbs on it. ... We're going to try to stop this explosion of pain clinics, to stop this overprescribing. We're going to swing for the fences."

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