This story, originally published by the Columbia Daily Herald, appeared Jan. 13, 2018. Copyright 2018 Columbia Daily Herald.
As the opioid crisis grows in Tennessee, local district attorneys have started to fight back against the epidemic.
District Attorney Brent Cooper, who represents Maury County and southern Middle Tennessee in the 22nd Judicial District, joined a lawsuit last week against some of the country’s largest opioid producers.
“Opioids have devastated communities in our district and around the country,” Cooper told The Daily Herald. “It’s time we hold those responsible for this epidemic responsible.
“My hope is that funds from this suit will allow me to provide treatment options and many other means to help the people of my district heal from the damage caused by this drug that was misrepresented as harmless by its manufacturers and distributors.”
In 2015 alone, Tennessee doctors wrote 7.8 million opioid prescriptions. That’s more prescriptions than Tennessee has residents — men, women and children combined.
Cooper and district attorneys from four other districts jointly targeted Purdue Pharma and its related companies. Others included Mallinckrodt, Endo Health Solutions and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and their subsidiaries.
“I was proud to join my colleagues in this lawsuit,” said Cooper, who represents Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties.
Two of the defendants were well-known doctors at pain clinics. Mark Murphy serves as medical director for Montclair Health & Wellness and North Alabama Pain Services. David Florence works as a primary physician at several regional pain clinics.
Murphy was the nation’s top prescriber of oxycodone hydrochloride and OxyContin to Medicare Part D patients in 2015, according to ProPublica.
“Tennessee ranks second in the nation for per-capita opioid prescriptions,” said Bryant C. Dunaway, district attorney general for Tennessee’s 13th Judicial District. “We have experienced a massive influx of opioids into the 19 counties named in this suit.
“Millions of pills have been overprescribed and diverted into vulnerable populations, resulting in a robust illegal trade, skyrocketing overdose rates, and a growing financial burden on our police, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers. The defendants named chose to participate in this process for personal gain, and we intend to hold them accountable,” he added.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants knowingly participated in the illegal opioid market through the following actions:
- The producer defendants directed their opioids to the 19 Tennessee counties of the state’s 13th, 16th, 17th, 22nd and 31st Judicial Districts, while the criminal defendants participated in the illegal opioid drug market throughout the same judicial districts and surrounding areas;
- The drug producers embarked on a fraudulent campaign to convince physicians that opioids carried a low risk of addiction and were therefore appropriate for non-acute problems such as chronic pain;
- The drug producers’ misrepresentations regarding the addictive nature of opioids, as well as the aggressive marketing of their collective fraudulent message, contributed to a market for illegally prescribed opioids;
- The criminal defendants’ actions of overprescribing opioids generated a significant regional influx of pills, resulting in a robust illegal drug trade;
- The drug producers’ marketing campaign gave rise to a market for street heroin for addicts who can no longer obtain prescription opioids or afford diverted opioids; and
- All defendants were aware of the extraordinary volume of prescriptions being written and took no steps to stop illegal prescriptions or diversions.
The lawsuit lays out stark statistics in wake of the epidemic. Unintentional overdose deaths, for example, account for more early deaths in Tennessee than automobile accidents, suicides or homicides.
A vast majority of the state’s overdose deaths involve opioids — nearly 72 percent, as recorded in 2015, the lawsuit said.
Among the 19 counties named, more than 1 million opioid prescriptions were filled in 2016. The same region recorded 550 opioid-related overdose deaths from 2012 to 2016.
“The defendants named in this complaint have either knowingly participated in the illegal market for opioids by purposely misleading the medical community and general public through fraudulent marketing campaigns, or they have overprescribed or diverted pills, or failed to stop the diversion of pills,” said J. Gerard Stranch, managing partner of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, the Nashville-based law firm that filed the lawsuit.
“The pill mills and dealers involved have written tens of thousands of opioid prescriptions and funneled millions of pills into our communities. The resulting illegal opioid trade has enriched the defendants at the expense of the citizens of Tennessee while causing immense suffering for those who become addicted.”
The lawsuit asks for judgment against the defendants for damages resulting from breaches of statutory and common law, seeks punitive damages against the defendants for their role in flooding Tennessee with illegal opioids, seeks to award restitution to the plaintiffs, and requests an injunction to stop the flood of opioids to the region.
The suit is the third such complaint filed in Tennessee in recent months. The first was filed in June 2017 in Sullivan County Circuit Court in Kingsport, and the second was filed in September 2017 in Campbell County Circuit Court in Jacksboro.
The three complaints represent 14 district attorneys general and 47 counties in Tennessee.