A recent court hearing in the Northeast Tennessee “Baby Doe” civil case naming opioid painkiller manufacturers was continued so the court can review thousands of documents provided by one of the defendants.
No new hearing date has been set. The action prompted plaintiffs to file a motion Nov. 18 with 2nd Judicial District Chancellor E.G. Moody asking for a default judgment in the Sullivan County Circuit Court case against defendant Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
The coronavirus pandemic and other factors have prompted several continuations of the jury trial. The most recent trial date was in September. A new trial date has not been scheduled, a plaintiff spokeswoman said.
The “Sullivan Baby Doe” lawsuit, named for a baby born addicted to opiates in 2015 at Holston Valley Medical Center, was filed in June 2017. It alleges drug manufacturers are responsible for the opioid epidemic in Northeast Tennessee.
The central claim of the Sullivan Baby Doe case is that if a company engages in activities that cause over-prescription and diversion, it can be identified as a drug dealer under Tennessee’s Drug Dealer Liability Act and held accountable for its actions.
District attorneys general from Northeast Tennessee were the first in the state to hold manufacturers of painkillers and “pill mill” operators that supply the narcotics allegedly responsible for the opioid addiction epidemic across the state and the specific judicial districts cited in the lawsuit.
Producer defendants included prescription opioid makers Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt, The Purdue Frederick Company, Endo Health Solutions, Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Two days before the scheduled Nov. 18 hearing in Sullivan County Circuit Court, Endo sent 2,800 pages of documents that were not included in previous filings.
The hearing date was postponed in order to give the court time to review the material, the plaintiff spokeswoman said.
Plaintiffs subsequently submitted a supplemental filing that asks for a default judgment. Plaintiffs include 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong, 2nd Judicial District Attorney General Barry Staubus, and 1st Judicial District Attorney General Kenneth Baldwin. Greene County is in the 3rd Judicial District.
“Endo added over 2,800 pages to artificially expand its ‘bench binder’ into three bankers’ boxes of materials,” the default judgment motion states.
The pages “were not part of Endo’s actual summary judgment filings, are not part of the official record, and are completely immaterial to the pending motions,” the filing says.
Plaintiffs wrote there is “no legitimate reason” for including them in case filings.
“But by doing so, Endo created the impression that the court could not and did not have time to adequately review and prepare for the Nov. 18 hearing,” the motion states. “Endo succeeded: the court pulled down the Nov. 18 hearing because of the volume of documents it received just days before the hearing.”
The action further delayed two long-pending motions by the plaintiffs seeking resolution of the case, “causing further prejudice to the plaintiffs, in addition to wasted attorney time preparing for the now-cancelled hearing.”
Plaintiffs maintain that submission of the material by Endo “is disrespectful of the court’s time, as it presumably resulted, or would have resulted, in the court reviewing voluminous materials that were never filed, are not part of the court record, and are immaterial.
“Yet again, Endo has interfered with the orderly progression of this case to trial,” making a default judgment warranted under the circumstances, the motion says.
Manufacturer defendants in the Baby Doe case are named in hundreds of other lawsuits filed by states, counties, cities and other municipalities across the U.S.
Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in 2019 as part of a nationwide attempt to settle thousands of suits that followed the lead of the 2017 Baby Doe action.
Mallinckrodt filed for bankruptcy protection in October after similar lawsuits were filed against the company alleging it helped spur the U.S. opioid epidemic.
Purdue Pharma made the widely used painkiller OxyContin. On Tuesday, Purdue pleaded guilty during a virtual hearing in a New Jersey federal court to three conspiracy charges and formally took responsibility for its part in an opioid epidemic.
The OxyContin maker admitted impeding the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts to combat the addiction crisis.
Claims in connection with the Baby Doe lawsuit and others across the country will continue to be pursued in bankruptcy court, several local district attorneys general have said.
Additional defendants in the Baby Doe case included Center Pointe Medical Clinic, LLC, a now-closed Kingsport office suspected of serving as a pill mill, two convicted opioid dealers, and a doctor convicted of medical fraud, Abdelrahman Mohamed. Center Pointe Medical closed in 2018, and Mohamed surrendered his medical license the same year.
Millions of documents furnished by defendants during discovery have been reviewed by the plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs “are prepared to try this case now and look forward to obtaining a new trial date as soon as possible,” Armstrong recently said.
Plaintiffs are represented by J. Gerard Stranch IV, managing partner of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, a Nashville law firm. Stranch is also part of a five-member team of lawyers representing the “negotiating class” in an Ohio-based federal court case representing plaintiffs from municipalities across the U.S. in nearly 2,300 lawsuits brought against opioid manufacturers.
There were 18 drug-related overdose deaths reported in Greene County in 2019, including at least nine related to opioid painkillers and street drugs like heroin. Many other overdoses were likely never reported, health officials said.
Greene County had 23 drug overdose deaths in 2018 and 21 in 2017, the year the lawsuit was filed.
Staubus has characterized Sullivan County as “ground zero” in the opioid epidemic. Greene County and the other three 3d Judicial District counties are also heavily impacted, Armstrong has said.
The suit demands judgment against the defendants for damages resulting from breaches of statutory and common law, seeks to award restitution to the plaintiffs, and requests an injunction “to stop the flood of opioids to the region.”
Sullivan Baby Doe was one of the first lawsuits of its type in the nation, “and the very first to represent a baby who was born drug-dependent,” according to Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings.