District attorneys will answer depositions in opioid lawsuit

Rain Smith • Aug 13, 2019 at 7:24 PM

KINGSPORT —  More than two years after local district attorneys announced their lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, legal wrangling continued Tuesday on who will answer depositions and when testimony will be shared in discovery.

Sullivan County Chancery Judge E.G. Moody chastised both sides at the beginning of the motions hearing — noting it is "amazing how attorneys can't agree on orders anymore" — but about 90 minutes later, some progress had been made. By Sept. 20, the plaintiffs will provide drug makers with "expert opinion" and documented local damages from the alleged opioid crisis.

About a month later, both sides will meet via conference call to try and hash out dates for a jury trial — possibly beginning early next year.

"Everything about the case has been delayed, it has been delayed since the beginning," said Moody. "I suspect it will continue to be delayed by both sides for different reasons."

In June 2017, Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus announced the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt PLC and Endo Pharmaceuticals. It was filed on behalf of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts, representing Sullivan, Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties.

Also named in the suit was "Baby Doe." The child's Sullivan County mother was reportedly addicted to opioids, thus he was born with neo-natal abstinence syndrome.

In December, attorneys for the defendants sent subpoenas for questioning of officials throughout Northeast Tennessee. On Tuesday, Moody said the local prosecutors could answer any depositions on behalf of the localities, with additional experts available for questioning as needed.

The district attorneys are represented by Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings. Managing attorney J. Gerard Stranch noted during the hearing that the streamlined deposition process can cut four months of obtaining statements down to just three weeks.

"I think that today's hearing will expedite the pretrial process and get us to trial,” said Staubus.

Since the opioid lawsuit was filed, dozens of motions and orders have been filed, including:

• The defendants unsuccessfully tried to have litigation moved from state court to the federal level.

• Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery argued the local DAs didn't have authority to sue the manufacturers. His office filed a motion to block the lawsuit but later withdrew it.

• Defendants attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed but failed.

• Opioid manufacturers sued black market websites and previously convicted pill mill operators, blaming them for local opioid abuse. Moody said they could pursue that legal angle — pending conclusion of the district attorneys' lawsuit.

• Cities and towns within Sullivan, Washington and Hawkins counties cannot be held accountable for the opioid epidemic, Moody ruled.

Local prosecutors contend that police departments, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers have had to weather the flood of opioids into our region, along with bearing the costs of the addiction crisis. Staubus hopes that any financial judgment obtained through litigation can locally fund new programs, treatment and staffing.

For nearly a year, Staubus has envisioned the opioid lawsuit trial as beginning in early 2020. In late October, attorneys on both sides are to conference with Moody to try and set a date.