Memphis, other local governments consider suits as TN drug deaths rise to record high

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

As drug overdose deaths in Tennessee reached a new record high, governments on the state, county, and municipal level are considering legal action against major pharmaceutical companies.
The Memphis City Council is one of the first cities in the state of Tennessee to take up the issue of filing suit against some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the nation to recoup costs related to dealing with the opioid epidemic in the city. Likewise, Shelby County is also researching the feasibility of a similar lawsuit.
Costs created by the addiction range from the more immediate – police overtime, processing toxicology and autopsy reports, and supplying officers with medications like Nalaxone to treat overdoses – to the longer lasting, such as foster care, jail costs, and treatment programs.
Several municipalities of various sizes have already filed lawsuits against drug makers on their own, including Everett, Wash.; Lewiston, Maine; Paterson, N.J.; Portland, Maine; Princeton, W.Va.; and Tacoma, Wash. Princeton is the smallest of these cities with a population of just under 6,000 while Tacoma is the largest with a population just under 208,000.
Other cities have joined other governmental groups in suits. Some 30 state and local jurisdictions in Ohio have also filed a class action suit, which includes the municipalities of Elyria and Lorain.
After a class action suit was filed by the municipality of Waterbury, Conn., several other Connecticut cities – including Bristol, Bridgeport, Coventry, New Milford, Naugatuck, Oxford, Roxbury, and Wolcott – have signed on as co-defendants with other municipalities in the state expected to sign on as well.
Tennessee is among 41 states that recently issued subpoenas against four major drug companies as part of an investigation to determine if the companies “engaged in unlawful practices in the marketing, sale, and distribution of opioids.”
Tennessee State Attorney General Herbert Slatery led the coalition of state attorneys general to investigate the roots of the opioid epidemic two days after prosecutors from three judicial districts covering nine upper East Tennessee counties filed suit against OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma in Sullivan County court.
“The opioid crisis impacts all of us, and is a threat to families in every community in Tennessee and across the country,” Slatery said. “We will use all resources available to identify and hold accountable those parties responsible. There is too much at stake not to attack this problem from all sides.”
States including California, Illinois, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and Oklahoma have even filed suit against OxyContin manufacturer Purdue over allegations they knew the drug was being used on the black market and did not intervene. The Cherokee Nation has filed a similar lawsuit against drug companies in tribal court, which had jurisdiction in the 14-county area in northeastern Oklahoma where their reservation is located.
In fact, more than 20 states, counties and cities have sued companies including Johnson & Johnson, Purdue, and McKesson Corp., over claims their aggressive marketing and distribution fueled the public health crisis. According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, the estimated national economic impact of prescription opioid overdoses, abuse and dependence is approximately $78.5 billion annually.
Many suits are similar to those filed against major tobacco companies by government entities during the 1990s. In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement – the suit on which many government entities are modeling their suits against opioid makers – awarded a minimum of $206 billion in the next 25 years to 46 states from four tobacco companies.
The attorneys general who filed suit in Sullivan County are also using a lesser known Tennessee law to prosecute drug companies. Officially the Tennessee Drug Dealer Liability Act but also nicknamed the “crack tax,” the law was instated to allow civil action against drug dealers. The lawsuit filed in Sullivan County seeks to label drugmakers as dealers and punish them financially for the impact of their products.
The plaintiff in the Sullivan County case is “Baby Doe,” an infant born addicted to opioids, and the child’s mother, “Mary Doe,” who are being represented by a Nashville-based law firm. In addition to the pharmaceutical company, the suit names two convicted opioid dealers and an area medical firm.
An additional five judicial districts encompassing 15 East Tennessee counties joined the Sullivan Cuonty suit in early October.
The suits being filed and considered across Tennessee come on the heels of another record-high year for overdose deaths in the state.
An estimated 1,631 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, according to newly released data from the Tennessee Department of Health. Overdose deaths have increased yearly and doubled in the past five year. Drug overdose-related deaths increased 74 percent from 2015 to 2016, with the largest increase in deaths occurring among those age 25 to 34.
State Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said statistics sometimes belie the human cost of the opioid crisis.
“Each of these numbers represents a person, with family and friends who are now facing the loss of someone dear to them to a cause that is preventable,” Dreyzehner said. “The rate of increase in these deaths is slower than in the previous year, but it is still a horrible increase, and as we feared, our data show illicit drugs like fentanyl are now driving the increase.”
Tennessee ranks No. 2 nationally in the share of opioid prescriptions per capita, and has the eleventh highest rate of opioid-related deaths of any state in the nation. Additionally, the amount of deaths related due to drugs like methamphetamine grew between 2015 and 2016 across Tennessee, especially among those between the ages of 25 and 44.