Tennessee appeals court says opioid producers can be sued


In a landmark decision, an Oklahoma judge on Monday ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state’s opioid crisis.

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled that a lawsuit against opioid makers can move forward, overturning a lower court that had dismissed the claims.

At issue is whether Tennessee’s Drug Dealer Liability Act applies to U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved manufacturers or only to “street dealers.”

A Campbell County judge ruled last year that the law “does not apply to manufacturers who are legally producing and distributing opioid medications.”

A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court meeting in Knoxville disagreed. In a Wednesday ruling, they found the law applies to anyone who knowingly participates in the illegal drug market “whether one’s headquarters is an office building or a back alley.”

The lawsuit, brought by seven Tennessee district attorneys and two children born dependent on opioids, claims that manufacturers including Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt were fully aware that their products were being diverted.

In Tennessee, with a population of about 6.8 million, there were nearly 12 million prescriptions for opioids over the two-year period beginning September 2015, the lawsuit states.

The suit claims manufacturers actively identified and targeted pharmacies that they knew were overprescribing.

“Drug manufacturers cannot, as is alleged here, knowingly seek out suspect doctors and pharmacies, oversupply them with opioids for the purpose of diversion, benefit from the process, and then cynically invoke their status as otherwise lawful companies to avoid civil liability,” the court found.

The suit is one of several filed in Tennessee courts that seek to hold manufacturers responsible for the state’s opioid epidemic. The state is also involved in lawsuits targeting manufacturers in both state and federal courts.

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