The Washington County Commission approved a resolution on Wednesday endorsing an undisclosed settlement in a pending lawsuit against parties alleged to be involved in facilitating opioid drug abuse and addiction in the region.
The resolution directs 1st Judicial District Attorney General Ken Baldwin and attorneys with the Knoxville law firm of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings to negotiate on the county’s behalf to reach the “best terms consistent” with a confidential settlement proposal that commissioners heard during a 40-minute closed session with legal counsel.
Other local governments involved in the state lawsuit have also met this week to consider similar settlement agreements.
Meanwhile, jury selection is set to begin Thursday for the damages trial of the so-called “Sullivan Baby Doe” lawsuit.
Washington County’s action came just hours after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined his counterparts in six other states in announcing a $26 billion agreement in an unrelated federal lawsuit brought by state and local governments against the nation’s three biggest drug distribution companies and one major opioid manufacturer.
Tennessee is slated to receive $600 million from that agreement. Slatery said the settlement is a “huge amount, and the second-largest in this nation’s history.”
State officials said the agreement, which covers more than 300,000 local government plaintiffs in multiple states, will also result in Johnson & Johnson discontinuing its opioid production.
“Today is a good day, and we are ready to move forward,” Slatery said. He also noted that opioid overdose deaths rose by 44% in 2020, adding “the urgency of this problem continues.”
Slatery said Tennessee is expected to see a large amount from the opioid settlement if the state “meets all the benchmarks” set out in the agreement. He said the state General Assembly has already put a “structure in place” to see that the settlement funds go to drug abatement programs.
“We are not at the finish line yet, but we are getting there,” Slatery said.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said that unlike the record tobacco settlements of the 1990s, the opioid agreement specifies recipients use “a vast amount” of the funds for drug abatement resources.
“This fundamentally changes the pharmaceutical industry,” Stein said.
Washington County commissioners met Wednesday in what was called an “emergency” session under the board’s rules to to “consider a settlement of a pending litigation” matter. The state’s Sunshine Law requiring government boards to hold all meetings in public view has an exception that allows such bodies to meet behind closed doors with their attorneys to discuss details of pending litigation.
The state litigation was filed in Sullivan County by local prosecutors in 2017 against drug manufacturers for their alleged roles in an “opioid epidemic” under the state’s Drug Dealer Liability Act.
The lawsuit, which is separate from the opioid litigation filed in federal court, seeks to compensate Washington and other plaintiff counties in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Judicial Districts for hardships created by the opioid epidemic.
The complaint originally listed prescription opioid drug maker Purdue Pharma, L.P. and its related companies, along with Mallinckrodt PLC, Endo Pharmaceuticals among the defendants.
Purdue and Mallinckrodt have since declared bankruptcy, with claims proceeding against them in those courts. Endo remains the only active corporate defendant listed in the original lawsuit.
Sullivan County Chancellor E.G. Moody handed down a decision in April granting a default judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor. The ruling imposed sanctions against defendant Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., but reserved a final judgment pending the damages trial that is scheduled to begin on Monday.