The Washington County Health, Education and Welfare Committee voted Thursday to approve a recommendation calling for the county to file a civil lawsuit against 18 opioid distributors and wholesalers in Greeneville federal court.
If the full County Commission approves the resolution at its Aug. 27 meeting, Washington County would enter into a retainer agreement with Johnson City attorney Tom Jessee to represent the county at no cost to taxpayers.
“We’ll be alleging public nuisance, negligence, misrepresentation, and civil RICO (The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act),” Jessee said.
“We believe in what we’re doing to the point that we’ve taken it on a contingent fee. We’re vested in the idea that these wholesalers and the manufacturers essentially pulled the wool over the public, the medical profession and everybody else’s eyes in selling these pills.”
If the county wins a monetary sum, whether it be through settlement, trial, verdict or compromise, Jessee’s firm would be paid one-third of the total for attorney fees. If the lawsuit proves fruitless, Jessee said the county would not incur any loss.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Endo International, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, HealthSolutions, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and Purdue Pharma would be among the defendants listed in the civil suit.
“We believe this is a local problem that deserves a local solution, which is why we’ve advocated strongly that individual entities at the county level file the lawsuits. We think this is the best possible approach,” Jessee said.
County jails, sheriff’s departments, court recovery programs and other local agencies on the ground have largely paid the bulk of costs related to the swell of opioid addiction ravaging Northeast Tennessee. Jessee believes those agencies should be the ones directly recouping costs, instead of the money flowing through state or federal governments.
“The responsibility for dealing with the results, the impact and the repercussions of the opioid problems in this community falls to county government. We’re the ones that operate the jail. We’re the ones that pay for law enforcement. We’re the ones that really feel the impact of opioid addiction and everything that goes with that in the community,” Eldridge said.
“I’d say four-fifths (of inmates) on any given night in jail is detoxing,” Jessee said. “So they’re stuck with that amazing burden. They have to pick them up, they have to take them to jail and they have to detox them. Much of it is all because of opioids.”
Jessee’s firm has contacted all 95 counties in Tennessee with the same offer as Washington County, and so far, 14 have accepted, he said. Unlike a class-action suit, each county lawsuit will be filed individually.
Hawkins, Johnson, Greene, Hamblen, Sevier and Hancock counties have already approved agreements with Jessee to file civil suits on their behalf against the opioid distributors and wholesalers. In July, the Carter County Commission voted to deny Jessee’s offer.
Jessee said his firm is working with other firms in West Virginia, Mississippi, California and Florida, on similar complaints. Altogether, Jessee said the group is representing roughly 600 different cities and counties across the country.
In June 2017, the First, Second and Third Judicial District attorneys general filed a suit against Purdue, Endo, Mallinckrodt and its’ subsidiaries alleging the drug companies misled the public and fraudulently marketed opioids to physicians. That case is still being litigated in Sullivan County Chancery Court.
The office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery also filed a suit in May against Purdue, alleging it violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act by making unlawful claims about its products.
A Johnson City Press investigation in June 2017 found Purdue, Mallinckrodt and Endo distributed roughly 78 million opioid pills and painkillers, worth over $100 million, in the Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport area between 2012 and 2016. Altogether, opioid distributors shipped enough painkillers in the Tri-Cities to supply each person with about 213 pills for a one-year period.