TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — Thursday marked a monumental settlement in a massive opioid lawsuit on behalf of local governments in nine Northeast Tennessee counties and “Baby Doe,” an infant born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in Sullivan County.
The Baby Doe opioid case will not go to trial, which was set to start July 26. Instead, a settlement of $35 million was reached between the plaintiffs and Endo Pharmaceuticals.
All parties voted unanimously in favor of the settlement.
Attorneys involved say with this money, help is on the way for communities caught in the grip of the opioid epidemic.
“This is a historic moment. This is a wonderful resolution. This is gonna be able to do good immediately,” said Gerard Stranch, the managing partner at Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, which represented Baby Doe and the participating counties and cities.
The lawsuit originally filed in 2017 sought to bring justice to those responsible for fueling Tennessee’s opioid crisis. Endo was the last remaining corporate defendant after Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt declared bankruptcy.
“In all the cases I have done in the last 46 years, you put them all together and that would not have the impact that this lawsuit has had in protecting our communities,” said Ken Baldwin, district attorney general for Tennessee’s First Judicial District.
Endo will now pay the $35 million in damages. After part of the settlement amount goes to Baby Doe and litigation expenses, the remaining $21 million will be split among the local county and city governments named in the suit.
“What we know is there are more babies being born with NAS every day, there are people overdosing every day, there are people dying every day,” said Stranch. “This is an opportunity to put that money to work immediately and stop the cycle. Or at least slow it down.”
Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus has helped lead the suit since the beginning. He feels justice has been served for the victims of Tennessee’s opioid epidemic.
“Now we want to go about preventing the problem from continuing and heal those people, treat those people that have been harmed in the past,” Staubus said.
District Attorney General Dan Armstrong of Tennessee’s Third Judicial District expressed frustration as he says state offices tried to make this case a state issue. He says the attorney general for Tennessee tried to intervene and take over the litigation.
“If anybody asked me what my biggest disappointment in this process was, it was the lack of cooperation and support from the attorney general’s office of the state,” said Armstrong.
Part of the reasoning behind accepting this settlement was acknowledging this money is greatly needed now, and a trial along with its appeals could take years.
“Had we received the full verdict we had asked for, that and 50 cents would have gotten you a cup of coffee. Because, the guilty verdict would have been a public acknowledgement that this is the amount of damage you did in the community,” said Stranch. “The question was, what was the harm that they caused? The jury verdict would have put a number on that but it would not have changed anything in the lives of the members of the community.”
There is a lot on the horizon for Northeast Tennessee with now more than $20 million coming into the region.
“We are not finished. There is a lot still to be done,” said Armstrong.
“There is great need for that money,” said Staubus. “The question of the future is, how are we going to spend that money?”
The district attorneys general all said they hope to use money from the settlement to bring about change when it comes to treatment and recovery in the region.
One idea presented is opening a regional facility to treat people who have been incarcerated, giving them the help they need to break free of addiction.
This was proposed to be put in the Greene Valley Developmental Center or the Carter County Work Camp.
Other ideas include expanding drug courts and putting treatment programs in local jails.
As a part of the settlement agreement, Endo does not resume any responsibility for the damages brought forth by the plaintiffs.
The company said in a statement, “The settlement will include no admission of wrongdoing, fault or liability of any kind by Endo.”
Money will be paid to the Northeast Tennessee municipalities in the coming weeks.
“I am sad that it was necessary that we had to do this. But I’m happy to see the changes this has brought about,” said Stranch.