More district attorneys general are expected to join a lawsuit filed in June by local state prosecutors against Purdue Pharma L.P., related companies and other defendants in an effort to curb the regional epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers.
It could take years for a settlement in the civil action against the Indiana-based pharmaceutical maker of opioid pills, but 3rd District Attorney General Dan Armstrong said that the lawsuit could ultimately help curb availability of the highly addictive drugs.
The lawsuit, in conjunction with efforts of law enforcement and other agencies like the 3rd Judicial District Drug Task Force, along with prosecution of cases on the state and federal level, should help to impact the flow of opioids and equally dangerous drugs like methamphetamine into the region, Armstrong said.
The effort still doesn’t change troubling statistics ever-apparent to Armstrong and other prosecutors. Armstrong’s district includes Greene, Hancock, Hamblen and Hawkins counties.
“I have had more drug overdoses come across my desk in the past three months than I can remember in a long time. It’s getting worse, it’s not getting better,” Armstrong said this week.
Drug overdose figures from Greene and the other counties in the 3rd Judicial District are sobering to consider. Figures for this year are not immediately available, but in 2016, there were 21 cases of autopsies of Greene County residents attributed to drug overdoses or listing drugs as a “significant factor” in the cause of death out of a total of 76 autopsies conducted. That means drugs are a direct or closely related factor in the death of more than 27 percent of all autopsies conducted.
Corresponding figures for 2015 in Greene County show drugs as a direct or closely related cause in about 22 percent of autopsies conducted, according to figures provided by Armstrong’s office.
Of 55 total autopsies conducted in 2015 on Greene County residents, 12 are attributable to drugs.
The vast majority of drug overdose deaths are opioid-related, officials have said.
Across the 3rd Judicial District, the trend is similar. Out of 175 total procedures in 2016, there were 42 drug-related autopsies, for a 24 percent drug overdose or contributing factor total.
In 2015, the total number of autopsies was 157, with 31 directly attributable to drugs or drug-related, for 19 percent of the total.
Many other deaths in the four-county area involving individuals who did not have autopsies performed were also attributable to drug overdoses, officials have said.
Numbers are up across the state, leading to more prosecutorial districts and government entities filing legal action against pharmaceutical companies that make opioids.
“More district attorneys will get involved,” Armstrong said. “Overdoses seem to be going up every day.”
Armstrong, 2nd Judicial District Attorney General Barry Staubus and Tony Clark, 1st Judicial District attorney general in Washington and three surrounding counties, stood together in June at a news conference at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City announcing the lawsuit with other law enforcement officials.
They jointly declared this area as “ground zero” in Tennessee’s opioid pill epidemic.
From central distribution hubs like Atlanta and Detroit, the deadly pills and meth are flooding into this region by criminals using increasingly sophisticated methods.
Ground zero is an apt characterization of the situation, Armstrong said.
“It is. We’ve got a generation now that is hooked on opioids and it’s going to take a long time to work through that, but hopefully we’ve started,” he said.
Meanwhile, police and other agencies continue their work with prosecutors.
“You will be hard-pressed to find a family in Greene County that’s not (been affected),” be it from an addicted relative or being a victim of theft or other crime, Greeneville police Chief Terry Cannon said after the news conference.
FOUR PLAINTIFFS INVOLVED
The Nashville law firm of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings PLLC, represents the attorneys general. The civil action was filed in Sullivan County Circuit Court in Kingsport on behalf of those it claims are victimized by “fraudulent market campaigns” that convince doctors that drugs like OxyContin are not highly addictive and a safe means of reducing pain.
The lawsuit alleges Purdue Pharma L.P., related companies, a Kingsport medical clinic and two private individuals convicted of pill sales all contribute to the epidemic that gives Tennessee the dubious distinction of having the second-highest rate of opioid addiction in the U.S. The total of any damages awarded resulting from the lawsuit would be determined by a judge, court officials said.
The civil action was jointly filed by Staubus, Armstrong and Clark. A fourth plaintiff, Baby Doe, through his Guardian AD Litem, was born addicted to opiates in 2015 at Holston Valley Regional Hospital.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is an ever-growing problem that continues to worsen, Niswonger Children’s Hospital CEO Linda Carter said. The children’s hospital opened a ward specifically created to treat infants born with NAS because of mothers’ addictions to opiates.