Local district attorneys can't sue opioid companies, Tennessee attorney general says

Rain Smith • Mar 20, 2018 at 6:20 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Nine months after a trio of Northeast Tennessee prosecutors announced a joint lawsuit to fight the region's opioid "epidemic," the state's chief legal officer is attempting to block their actions.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, arguing that district attorneys in Sullivan, Washington and Hawkins counties don't have authority to sue drug manufacturers.

Included in Slatery's motion is his assertion that the local prosecutors brought their lawsuit forth "on behalf of the state of Tennessee," but it's Slatery's duty to direct opioid litigation in the state. The attorney general added that he has authority to participate in any suits that bear the interest on the general public, especially if there is a perceived public nuisance.

Slatery also took issue with the local district attorneys hiring a Nashville-based law firm to handle their case. His motion says they "may not retain outside counsel without approval from the attorney general and the governor."

Leigh Ann Jones, spokeswoman in the attorney general’s office, told the Times News that Slatery is also leading a coalition of 40 states in an investigation of opioid manufacturers and distributors. She said litigation is pending in Cleveland, Ohio, with settlement discussions ongoing.

Slatery's office has since received a letter signed by 14 Tennessee district attorneys general, including those in Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties. Over seven pages, it argues that opioid lawsuits can and should be handled at the local level.

It ends with: "We knew what we were doing when we decided to address the harm done by the pharmaceutical industry to our citizens. For the sake of our citizens, we need to see this through."

Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus told the Times News that the Nashville law firm handling the local opioid lawsuit — Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings — will file a motion to oppose Slatery's intervention.

"We want to work with the attorney general," said Staubus. "However, I believe that I have the authority to file this suit and this is the most effective way to seek redress through the courts — with our lawsuit in our county, where we live and where we reside and we see the problem. Not in Nashville. "

During a June press conference at Johnson City's Niswonger's Children's Hospital, Staubus outlined plans to sue three opioid manufacturers. The lawsuit was later expanded to include a handful of alleged "pill mill" proprietors and doctors.

During the media briefing, Staubus was flanked by two of his co-plaintiffs: Washington County District Attorney General Tony Clark and Hawkins County District Attorney General Dan Armstrong. The suit also names a fourth plaintiff: "Baby Doe," whose Sullivan County mother was addicted to opioids, thus he was born with neo-natal abstinence syndrome.

The prosecutors' lawsuit seeks judgment against three opioid manufacturers for damages resulting from "breaches of statutory and common law," along with an injunction to stop "the flood of opioids" into the region. It argues that police departments, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers will bear the cost of the opioid crisis for years to come.

On Tuesday, Staubus added that his attorneys are not being paid by himself, the other district attorneys or tax payer money. If the case is won or a settlement achieved, according to Staubus, the law firm will net a portion of any settlement, while the rest will come directly to Sullivan, Washington and Hawkins counties.

Staubus envisions the local money would be overseen by a 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.

"If there's any money or relief obtained, we aren't going to have to funnel it through Nashville," Staubus said of his lawsuit. "It will come straight here for our needs."

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