Editorial: Opioid lawsuit will have national impact

Editorial Board • Dec 31, 2019 at 5:30 PM

A lawsuit that goes to trial this May in Sullivan County may be historic in damages sought and national impact and has recently revealed shocking information about the depth of this region’s opioid epidemic.

The suit was filed by Northeast Tennessee district attorneys general and accuses opioid manufacturers and distributors of contributing to the epidemic. It’s dubbed the Sullivan Baby Doe lawsuit and was filed in 2017 over a child born in Sullivan County with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of medical issues that occur in a newborn exposed to drugs while in the mother’s womb.

The trial will begin May 18 and last two to four weeks. It will be heard by Sullivan County Chancery Court Judge E.G. Moody in the county’s Circuit Court in Bristol. It seeks to hold three major drugmakers — Purdue Pharma and its related companies, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and Endo Pharmaceuticals — responsible to some degree for the opioid addiction crisis gripping the region.

Why? Because as Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus has said, “These companies know and have known how many pills are shipped to certain areas, and when you have tens of thousands of pills flooding into towns with hundreds of residents, that’s an obvious problem that opioid producers have no incentive to solve. They profit handsomely from overprescription and oversupply activities.”

The lawsuit claims that Baby Doe’s mother got into a serious car wreck in which she broke her ankle and legs and needed multiple surgeries to repair the damage. She was in extraordinary pain and was prescribed Lortab. She took her pills but was taking twice the amount her doctor prescribed, according to the lawsuit.

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, and 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 pharmaceutical companies were directly responsible for fueling the environment Baby Doe was born into.

Since the lawsuit was filed, more than 2,500 Tennesseans have died from opioid overdoses, and more than 1,800 babies have been born in the state with neonatal abstinence syndrome. And the epicenter is Sullivan County, which leads the region in drug overdose deaths and NAS babies.

Documents recently revealed as part of the lawsuit show appalling information:

• An astounding 7,000 grandparents in the nine Northeast Tennessee counties represented in the suit have primary custody of their grandchildren, largely due to parental use of opioids.

• Those nine counties had a rate of 237 opioid prescriptions per 100 people filled in Sullivan County in 2010, compared to a national rate of 81 prescriptions per 100 people.

• There was a corresponding rate of overdose deaths due to opioids, with a rate of 19.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 people compared to the overall U.S. rate of 14.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

• There was a higher incidence rate of NAS in the nine counties, with 41 cases per 1,000 live births (198 infants) in 2018, compared to the Tennessee average of 11 cases per 1,000 live births.

There is much to answer for in those statistics.

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