Judge quashes subpoenas in local opioid lawsuit

Rain Smith • Apr 4, 2019 at 3:42 PM

KINGSPORT — Subpoenas that drug companies sent to county and city officials across Northeast Tennessee have been quashed, confirming that area prosecutors are indeed representing those localities in their lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

The court order was one of four issued Wednesday by Sullivan County Chancery Judge E.G. Moody. On Feb. 12, attorneys representing both Purdue Pharma and local district attorneys spent nearly five hours arguing several issues, including the subpoenas, medical records and legal representation. They later presented Moody with proposals on how to proceed on the sticking points.

This week's orders from Moody have sided with the contentions of Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings, who are handling the local prosecutors' case.

"We feel our positions were vindicated by the judge's ruling," Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus told the Times News Thursday. "We can go forward with the case and continuing the discovery process."

In June of 2017, Staubus announced the lawsuit against the drug manufacturers. He said he and other district attorneys were seeking injunction and financial compensation for a “flood of opioids” into their communities.

This past holiday season, attorneys for the targeted opioid manufacturers began sending subpoenas to public offices in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts. That represents Sullivan, Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties. 

In February, the defense contended that the locales are third parties in the DAs' opioid lawsuit, as they have no binding documents showing legal representation by Stranch’s law firm. Attorney J. Gerard Stranch argued that the subpoenas were intended to scare the municipalities, and that the requests for discovery must got through his office and the district attorneys. Moody has now ruled in favor of the latter and quashed the subpoenas.

The drug companies’ representation also previously filed motions to learn the identity of “Baby Doe.” Along with the district attorneys, the child is a fourth plaintiff named in the suit against opioid manufacturers, as the child was reportedly born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Moody has now ruled that the defendants cannot be provided the baby's personal information.

Attorneys for Purdue also requested any medical or additional county records on drug users, along with specific prescriptions the plaintiffs believe were dispensed improperly. Moody ruled the localities and Stranch's firm are not required to adhere to the burdensome request, adding that the drug manufacturers' representation should narrow their scope of discovery.

Moody also attempted to smooth out the transfer of information between the two counsels. In February, defense attorneys said about 60 million pages of drug company records had been sent to the district attorneys. Their attorneys, in turn, argued that much of the manufacturer's provided material was not searchable, meaning it had little value.

In the future, materials submitted to the DAs' representation must be in a searchable, "ingestible" format, ruled Moody.

Future court proceedings have yet to be set. Staubus says his goal is to have the case set for trial later this year or in early 2020.