Shelby County Commissioners file opioid lawsuit against drug companies

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. -  It wasn't the full Shelby County Commission, but four of the 13 commissioners went before cameras Thursday to say they have an answer to the opioid crisis plaguing the community.

"Our attorneys are in the final stages of launching litigation  which we believe will result in significant recovery for the hundreds of millions of dollars Shelby County has spent trying to heal, nurse and deal with the opioid crisis for the benefit of our citizens," said Shelby County Commission Chair Heidi Shafer.

Shafer says a firm with expertise in filing lawsuits against opioid perpetrators has already been hired.

County Commissioner Terry Roland says it will give the county a head start when it comes to getting back dollars already spent.

"If we wait on the attorney general of Tennessee to file suit, then the state will determine how much we get. If we sue in state court we have a seat at the table, a better chance to recoup the resources we have lost," said Roland.

They say those resources will go into the millions for law enforcement and health care.

The lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies was filed at 9 Thursday morning on behalf of the County, but the issue won't go before the full County Commission until next week.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who says his administration was already working on a plan, was blind sided by today's announcement.

"They are not speaking as a voice for the County Commission. You have 4 of the county commissioners out of the 13 that here today," said Luttrell. "That has to be really initiated through the county attorney's office and we would rely very heavily on the county attorney to give us the guidance we need legally to file a lawsuit."

But Heidi Shafer tells WREG commissioners have been waiting on the Mayor to take action for two years and nothing has been done.

When she became chair, she used her authority under the county charter which says the chair can hire outside counsel at its own discretion.

She says the law firm Napoli Shkolnik has represented high-profile cases like Phen-Phen and the 9-11 victims.

They will only be paid if they win in litigation and then only 25 percent of whatever is awarded.

She says unlike other firms the state has been considering that charge 33-40 percent, the county's firm would go after opioid distributors in addition to pharma companies, marketers and manufacturers.

But there are nine other commissioners who still have a vote on this and may take issue with a contract already being signed.

Shafer says she is confident the decision won't be overturned.

"We are finding our hospitals and our jails have now been impacted by this as well. This falls on the shoulders of our taxpayers . It is our responsibility as legislators to act immediately on this," said Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton.

Commissioner Terry Roland says they only need seven votes to ratify hiring the law firm. He believes they have that seven.

The full commission is expected to take up the issue at its meeting next week and with all this debate, it should be interesting.