BRISTOL, Tenn. — A major lawsuit seeking to hold drug manufacturers accountable for the opioid epidemic in Northeast Tennessee is now scheduled for a September trial, according to a recent court order.
The “Sullivan Baby Doe” case was originally set to go before a jury in Bristol, Tennessee on Aug. 17, but the start date was pushed to Sept. 21 due to a medical condition affecting a court employee. The August date was the result of a separate, prior postponement from a May trial date after the coronavirus pandemic led to a temporary suspension of jury trials.
A group of Northeast Tennessee district attorneys general (DAGs) is bringing the lawsuit, which contends that manufacturers flooded the region with drugs that the companies knew would be diverted for illegal use.
The suit is named for a baby born in Sullivan County with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which affects newborns exposed to drugs in a mother’s womb before birth.
DAGs from nine counties in the region, including Barry Staubus in Sullivan County, brought the suit in 2017 under the state’s Drug Dealer Liability Act (DDLA), a law that allows for the recovery of damages caused by illegal drug use.
If the DAGs win a judgment, they hope to put financial resources awarded toward treatment and recovery programs.
There were some questions about whether the local trial would be able to move forward because the Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to review key issues in a separate but similar case.
That case — Effler v. Purdue Pharma LP — originated in Campbell County and was the subject of a Knoxville appeals court decision last year.
Drug manufacturers argue that the DDLA does not apply to regulated companies that lawfully produce drugs, but the appeals court said otherwise.
“Drug manufacturers cannot, as is alleged here, knowingly seek out suspect doctors and pharmacies, oversupply them with opioids for the purpose of diversion, benefit from the process, and then cynically invoke their status as otherwise lawful companies to avoid civil liability,” Court of Appeals Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote in the decision. “The common perception of a drug dealer may be that of the street dealer, but the DDLA does not make that distinction.”
Another issue in the Effler case involved whether the DAGs had standing, or the ability of a party to bring a lawsuit. The appeals court ruled that they could bring the suit.
However, the manufacturer defendants appealed the Effler ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which decided in March that it will hear the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Sept. 2, according to the court’s online calendar.
Attorneys for the defendants in the Sullivan Baby Doe suit urged Sullivan County Chancery Court Judge E.G. Moody to stop the local lawsuit from going to trial until the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on the issues in the Effler case.
The case could be “rendered moot” if the Supreme Court rules in favor of drug manufacturers on questions relevant to the local lawsuit, according to lawyers representing Mallinckrodt LLC, Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Moody denied the request for a stay in a May 4 order.
He wrote, in part, that “although this case and the Effler case have some overlapping issues, the evidence in each case is significantly different which could result in different holdings” and that “it is more probable than not” that the state Supreme Court would agree with the previous appeals court ruling.
The drug manufacturers then asked the appeals court to review the trial court’s denial of the motion to stay. The appeals court declined to do so, and the state Supreme Court similarly rejected the request in a July 17 order.
This means that the Sullivan Baby Doe case is still on track to go to trial.
“This case is finally at the end of the road, and it’s time for these defendants to get in front of a jury and explain their conduct,” Gerard Stranch, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Sullivan Baby Doe case, said this week.
It’s unclear how long the trial may take. Stranch said it could potentially take three to six weeks.
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