Dr. Adele Lewis, Deputy State Chief Medical Examiner, talks about the death rate of opioid overdose in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Lacy Atkins / USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee
This story, originally published by the Daily News Journal, appeared Jan. 10, 2018. Copyright 2018 Daily News Journal.
Five top prosecutors from across Tennessee, including one covering Rutherford County, are suing prescription drug manufacturers, doctors and providers in the latest legal action taken to address the opioid epidemic in the state.
The district attorneys general filed their 104-page lawsuit Wednesday in Cumberland County Circuit Court. They join two other groups of Tennessee prosecutors who filed similar suits last year in state court.
All together, the coalition includes 14 district attorneys representing 47 Tennessee counties.
Their provocative argument rests on proving the defendants, including a group of high-powered pharmaceutical companies and health care providers, knowingly participated in the illegal drug market.
State law allows recovering addicts and others to sue illegal drug dealers for damages. Applying that law to prescription drug manufacturers is unprecedented, but a lead attorney representing the prosecutors said it is a winning argument because the manufacturers willingly profit from illegal use of painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet.
“Demand is being driven by illegal sources and the manufacturers are happy to fill those orders,” J. Gerard Stranch, managing partner of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, the Nashville-based law firm that filed the three lawsuits on behalf of the district attorneys. “The producer-defendants don’t want this problem to stop.”
“Anything they are doing is window dressing, because they profit too much from the illegal drug market.”
The manufacturers have blasted the previous suits from the Tennessee district attorneys as misguided and unfair. A spokeswoman for Endo Health Solutions, one of the defendants and a leading opioid manufacturer, cited a series of moves the company had taken to avoid promoting opiates and to keep them from being taken illegally.
“It is Endo’s policy not to comment on current litigation,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email. “That said, we deny the allegations contained in this lawsuit and intend to vigorously defend the company.”
Along with Endo, the latest suit targets other top prescription opioid manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt and Teva Pharmaceuticals. Additional defendants include pain management clinics described in the suit as pill mills, medical professionals and a convicted drug dealer.
Stranch said the strategy was to take on the opioid pipeline at every level.
The lawsuit seeks financial restitution for damages related to opioid addiction and overdoses in the areas represented by the prosecutors. It also seeks an injunction that would prevent the defendants from “flooding the Tennessee markets” with “illegal opioids.”
The suit filed Wednesday was the latest attempt to confront the opioid epidemic in Tennessee, where more opiate prescriptions are doled out per capita than any state in the nation except West Virginia.
In December, the city of Nashville filed a federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, claiming they used misleading marketing claims to drive up opioid use and then violated federal law by not reporting the dangerous addictive properties of the drugs. Williamson county followed with a similar federal suit last week.
State and local officials across the country have filed similar lawsuits at the federal and state level as the nation grapples with a wave of overdoses and addiction.
Jennings Jones, district attorney for Tennessee’s 16th judicial district, which includes Rutherford County, is a plaintiff in the latest suit. He joined the effort to confront a swell of addictions and overdoses that have hit the state, and his district, as the opioid crisis grew.
“The thought behind this lawsuit is that something needs to happen,” Jones said. “I want to see the opioid manufacturers change what they’re doing.”
“I want to see something happen, and the sooner the better.”
So far, the 14 district attorneys general involved in the trio of lawsuits in state court represent a largely rural swath of the state. Stranch, the lawyer representing the three groups of district attorneys, said he expects the coalition to grow with additional suits later this year.
“These defendants created an illegal drug market that did not exist 25 years ago through a combination of turning a blind eye to pill diversion and false marketing claims about the safety of opioid drugs,” Stranch said. “Soon enough they’ll be in front of a jury who will assess damages against them for their conduct.”