'Time is of the essence' for Hawkins to approve federal opioid lawsuit

Jeff Bobo • Jan 23, 2018 at 6:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — "Time is of the essence" for the Greene County law firm of Jessee and Jessee to get Hawkins County's final approval to file a federal nuisance lawsuit against opioid distributors.

Attorney Crystal Jessee told the County Commission on Monday all firms filing similar lawsuits are participating in a conference on Jan. 31 in Ohio, where the lawsuits are being filed.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Bob Palmer scheduled a special called meeting for Monday at 3:30 p.m. and invited all commissioners to attend to ask questions before final permission to file the lawsuit is given.

"Typically with all other counties the mayor has the authority to sign the contract and approve the complaint (written draft of the lawsuit)," Jessee told the commission. "The mayor had asked that we go back before the Safety Committee, which is fine. We don't care to get it voted on. But it was my understanding we were on the agenda for Friday, and then we got pulled off because some people had questions."

Jessee added, "Time is of the essence. All the cases filed in Tennessee are being filed in Ohio, and there is a conference there on Jan. 31."

Although numerous counties across Tennessee and other states are filing this same type of nuisance lawsuit against opioid distributors, it is not a class action. Each lawsuit is filed individually.

County Attorney Jim Phillips said he is expecting some new information from Attorney General Dan Armstrong that may have a bearing on Hawkins County's decision to move forward with the nuisance lawsuit.

Hawkins County's lawsuit would be separate from the lawsuit filed in June against prescription narcotic manufacturers by District Attorneys Barry Staubus, Tony Clark and Dan Armstrong representing Northeast Tennessee’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts — including Hawkins, Sullivan, and Washington counties.

Jessee told the commission Monday, as she has stated in the past, Hawkins County will reap no fiscal benefit from the lawsuit by the attorneys general.

But any funds the county receives from its federal nuisance lawsuit against opioid distributors could be used at the county's discretion. The lawsuit is to be filed at no expense or risk of expense to the county.

Although the commission has already voted to move forward with the lawsuit, approval is needed again due to changes to the contract including:

1. Hawkins County's attorney fee is reduced.

There are about 110 identical lawsuits filed by the same consortium of attorneys in multiple states, and some of those states limit attorney fees at 30 percent.

Jessee said they decided it was unfair for Tennessee counties to pay 33.3 percent while others paid 30, so they agreed to reduce fees in Tennessee, including Hawkins County, to 30 percent.

2. Collecting attorney fees from defendants.

Jessee: “Some (Tennessee) statutes allow us to directly collect attorneys' fees from the defendant. That means, if we can collect attorneys' fees, we don't want the 30 percent (from the plaintiffs). We want to get the directly (from the defendants) so the (settlement or judgment) money would come directly to Hawkins County, if we can get those approved by the court."

3. List every plaintiff law firm in the complaint.

“We have to designate a lead council and a local council. Of course, the local council will be us (Jessee and Jessee) and we've voted on a lead council, Mike Fuller, who has actually practiced in Hawkins County before, and I've practiced with him here.”

4. Settlement negotiations must be approved in writing.

County Attorney Jim Phillips requested a change in the contract requiring all settlement negotiations to be approved by writing and designating a county liaison to attend those negotiations.

Hawkins County's lawsuit is also different from all other lawsuits in that the plaintiffs’ attorney agrees not to sue any local-owned pharmacies.


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