Hawkins Commission  deadlocks on opioid lawsuits

The first half of Monday night’s Hawkins County Commission meeting was filled with impassioned argument from two attorneys who want to get Hawkins County a ruling or settlement in a Drug Deal Act Lawsuit involving four “Big Pharma” companies.

Neither party got what they wanted, however, as the commission deadlocked 9-9 with three abstentions on proceeding with the lawsuits.

Third District Attorney General Dan Armstrong brought his lawsuit against the Big Pharma companies in 2017 through the firm of Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings, PLLC.

The bill was introduced by Commissioner Mark DeWitte and was seconded by Commissioner Valerie Mallett Goins.

Both sides stepped forward to state their positions.

Armstrong apologized for not being at the commission’s January meeting, saying he didn’t know that it had been put on the agenda at that time.

“I don’t blame anybody but myself for not realizing that,” Armstrong said.

Back in June, 2017, Armstrong filed a lawsuit on behalf of the counties in the Third Judicial District, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, and Hawkins under the Drug Dealer Liability Act.

“We sued street dealers, doctors, pill mills and three pharmaceutical companies, Purdue, Mallinckrodt and Endo Health Solutions,” Armstrong said. “We began having discovery in the case shortly thereafter. It’s the only case in the state of Tennessee where discovery has been completed.”

Armstrong said he wanted to bring to account those who have been responsible.

“Dr. Mohammed from Morristown has consented to a plea in this case and is willing to testify in this case,” Armstrong said. “He served 30 months in Federal prison for Medicaid fraud, and elocuted to having drive-by patients who he would not see, examine or do tests on. He came by and wrote prescriptions for opioids.”

Purdue has filed for bankruptcy to try to structure a global settlement in bankruptcy court, according to Armstrong.

“My attorneys and I have made an appearance in that court and we filed a claim on your behalf,” Armstrong said.

Meanwhile, attorney Crystal Jessee discussed a similar lawsuit.

“We absolutely believe splitting the causes of action will harm the county in the ultimate outcome,” Jessee said. “As to this splitting, there is only one pile of money. We discussed this the last time. Two of the three companies are in bankruptcy. Those two companies (Purdue and Mallinckrodt) we have already filed a claim for you. Why would we hire another firm that has costs already attached to them to file.”

According to Jessee, Endo is also getting ready to file for bankruptcy.

“If Endo wants to come and settle, which we’ve already spoken with, they said they would only do a settlement,” she said.

Armstrong wanted to get Hawkins County on board with his lawsuit since it is being argued in a motion hearing in Bristol Thursday.

“Endo is trying everything not to file for bankruptcy in Judge E.G. Moody’s court in Sullivan County,” he said. “We have a motion to substitute counties who have passed resolutions to go in as plaintiffs and I come in and out as the attorney of record. That was necessary because of the Supreme Court decision in another case.”

A sister case filed in Campbell County, Tennessee, the judge dismissed the DDLA claims against the pharmaceutical companies and ruled that the district attorney generals do not have standing.

“Judge Moody never ruled those two things, “Armstrong said. “He said we have standing in the DDLA.”

The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the judge in the Campbell County case, saying that the DDLA not only applies, but the district attorney generals do have standing in the lawsuit. It was appealed to the State Supreme Court where, in the first ruling of its kind in this country, said that the DDLA does apply to pharmaceutical companies. The Supreme Court said that Armstrong could could represent the counties, but not be the plaintiff for the counties.

“With exception to New York City, we are the next trial in line in the nation,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said that in Jessee’s address before the commission in January, there were some things that were said that are not true.

“You were told ‘the lawsuit will do nothing but harm the county.’ That is the furtherest thing from the truth,” Armstrong said. “This lawsuit cannot harm the county. All it can do is give you another avenue of recovery. You were also told that our lawsuit had been dismissed. It has not been dismissed.”

Also, Armstrong addressed Jessee’s claims that the county would be responsible for a 25% charge to the Branstetter firm and 30% to the Jessee law firm for any recovery.

“I can’t believe that Ms. Jessee can take the position that she would be entitled to 30% of a settlement she absolutely had nothing to do with,” Armstrong said. “I can’t believe that she would do anything that would be contrary to the best interests of Hawkins County.”

After both sides spoke, an effort to refer the resolution back to committee failed on a 10-11 vote.

When the vote came for a final decision to add Hawkins County to the lawsuit, the vote was 9-9 with three abstentions, therefore the resolution failed. It can be brought back again at next month’s meeting.

Voting for the resolution were Commissioners George Bridwell, Jeff Barrett, Keith Gibson, Tom Kern, Valerie Mallott Goins, Hannah Speaks Winegar, Glenda Davis, Nancy Barker and DeWitte.

Voting against the resolution were Commissioners Raymond Jessee, Danny Alvis, Charles Housewright, Charles Thacker, Dawson Fields, Jason Roach, Larry Clonce, Mike Herrell and Donnie Talley. Abstaining were Chairman Rick Brewer, Commissioners Syble Vaughan Trent and Bobby Edens.