Trial date, venue set for local opioid suit

Rain Smith • Oct 30, 2019 at 3:44 PM

KINGSPORT — The latest hearing in local district attorneys’ “Baby Doe” lawsuit featured familiar motions by opioid manufacturers — most decried yet again as “delay” tactics by opposing counsel — but after more than two years, a trial date and venue have been set.

On Tuesday, Sullivan County Chancellor E.G. Moody presented the day as May 18, 2020 and the location as Bristol. The Bristol courthouse has more room and modern amenities than Chancery Court in Kingsport, said Moody, and the trial is expected to last several weeks.

An attorney for one drug manufacturer initially told Moody that the May date “is not doable.” A possible alternative date in September was more realistic, he said, but that’s “not to say there may still not be some issues to derail that.”

Moody “encouraged” both sides to be ready in May, then monthly meetings were agreed to be scheduled among Moody and both counsels. The idea is to stave off any possible issues and disagreements that would derail the trial from beginning in the spring.

Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus had initially hoped it would begin in early 2020. It was in June 2017 that he filed the civil suit against Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt PLC and Endo Pharmaceuticals. Since then, Purdue Pharma has declared bankruptcy, and Mallinckrodt and Endo remain active defendants.”

“We’re ready to go,” said Gerard Stranch, a Nashville-based attorney representing Staubus. “The judge is correct — if you don’t set this, it will never go to trial.”

On behalf of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts — encompassing Sullivan, Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties — Staubus is seeking financial compensation for drug manufacturers’ alleged roles in an “opioid epidemic.”

What that amount may be has not been publicly disclosed. Staubus has previously stated that any financial judgment obtained would fund new local drug awareness programs, treatment, staffing and other issues addressing addiction.

“At the end of the day, (drug manufacturers) don’t have a real defense to their conduct,” Stranch said after Tuesday’s hearing. “And they don’t want a jury of 12 to rule on it.”

In the latest round of legal wrangling, attorneys for drug manufacturers argued that obtaining scores of documents from the plaintiffs was “highly relevant” to their defense. Material they seek includes:

* All documents related to active law enforcement investigations of drug use and drug dealers, across all three judicial districts. (Stranch responded that active criminal investigations are not discoverable — in order to protect the integrity of those probes and future prosecution — and compiling them is labor and cost prohibitive.)

* All documents related to active drug investigations involving “Mary Doe,” the mother of “Baby Doe.” (Staubus’ lawsuit lists “Baby Doe” as a Sullivan County child born with neonatal abstinence syndrome; the woman was recently deposed by attorneys for drug manufacturers.)

* Any contractual agreement between the district attorneys general and localities in their jurisdictions, showing they have agreed to representation in the lawsuit and enjoy attorney-client privilege. (Moody asked for any proof showing the localities objected to being named and represented in the suit.)

“This is another attempt to manufacture a discovery dispute to justify not setting this trial soon,” Stranch said of the opposing attorneys’ motions.

Moody said he needed to review the issues presented Tuesday by the manufacturer defendants, as he had not previously been provided the details. Both counsels were told to provide proposed orders on the disputes within a month, followed by monthly meetings up to trial in May. Whether those meetings will be informal or in court has yet to be determined.