Claiborne commission resuscitates dead issue

Published 1:52 pm Wednesday, February 27, 2019

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The Claiborne Commission spent a protracted amount of time breathing life back into an issue that was originally struck down in June of 2018. The end result is that the county has now agreed to be represented by the Jessee Law Office in litigation against opioid manufacturers.

Resolution 2019-015 revisits the contractual agreement that 16 out of 21 commissioners opposed last year. The contract, now in effect, apparently allows the law firm to sue solely on behalf of the county – as opposed to current litigation by Jared Effler, attorney general for the 8th Judicial District, who is representing all five counties within his jurisdiction, at the state level.

The lawsuit brought by the attorney general is currently in appeals court, awaiting a decision that should be made by this fall, according to Effler. That suit was struck down, during its first go-round.

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Tom Jessee, with the Greeneville-based Jessee Law Office, spoke at length about the proposed contract.

“Please understand. This is not a class action. Each county, each city has an individual lawsuit. Those cases get filed in federal court. The reason we believe they should be filed there is, it gives a much better forum – part of the allegations are federal RICO statutes, which we allege. It’s my understanding that the state cases – the attorney general cases – are down to just drug dealer cases. Meaning, that the other causes of action we have pending in federal court are not in the state cases,” said Jessee.

He said the federal lawsuit would be filed in Knoxville prior to being heard in Ohio. If the case is not settled at that point, the trial would be moved back to the federal court in Knoxville.

Effler, who was present at the commission meeting on another matter, cautioned that accepting the contract would be “premature.”

“I would submit that the best approach is to wait and see what the court of appeals does. We feel confident. We believe that we’re in a good position, on appeal. And, I think the strongest evidence of that is that the manufacturer defendants have continued to engage in settlement negotiations with us despite the lawsuit in Claiborne county being dismissed.

“The biggest reason that I submit not to sign on with another firm or have another group of attorneys representing the interests of Claiborne county is it will ultimately reduce your recovery. If this litigation is successful, Claiborne county’s damages are what they are. For instance, if damages are $100, that’s all the damages anyone can (get), whether there’s five attorneys, or ten attorneys or one involved. The more attorneys you have, the more fees will come out of that hypothetical $100,” said Effler.

He took a few moments to explain why the opioid lawsuit his office had brought to trial had been dismissed.

“Judge (John) McAfee didn’t believe that the Drug Dealer Liability Act applied to those lawful manufacturers. However, if you read the Act, you’ll see language in there that says, ‘even if you facilitate an illegal drug market.’ – And, we believe, before we filed our lawsuit, we had sufficiently pled that. And, the discovery that we have gleaned, after our lawsuit was filed, bears that out,” said Effler.

After more discussion, commissioner Charlton Vass made a motion to table the matter. The motion was amended to table until the appeals court releases its verdict. The motion failed by a vote of 13 to 7. Commissioner Sherry McCreary was absent during the meeting.

A motion by commissioner Anthony Rowe to defer the decision one month also failed.

Prior to voting on the original resolution, commissioner Whitt Shuford said every commissioner agreed last June to “look out for Claiborne county’s best interests.”

“Mr. Effler is an elected official. He’s telling us, as district attorney, what his opinion is. I think it was made clear last month that we’re not in the business of rescinding resolutions. And, since we voted this down in June, aren’t we doing the same thing we did last month,” said Shuford.

A motion by commissioner Anthony Rowe to defer the decision, until the county attorney could be present, failed by a vote of 14 to 6.

After more wrangling, the commission adopted the original resolution by a vote of 12 to 8. Commissioners Shuford, Vass, Brent Clark, Nathan Epperson, Zach Mullins, Mitchell Cosby, Steve Brogan and Steve Murphy voted against the measure.

Commissioners Rowe, Juanita Honeycutt, Kim Large, Stacy Crawford, Nicholas Epperson, Rosemary Barnett, Carolyn Brooks, Steve Mason, Shawn Peters, David Mundy and James Hatmaker voted in favor of contracting with Jessee Law Office.

Under the contract, the firm will receive 30 percent of any damages recovered, plus expenses. If they recover nothing, the law firm receives nothing.

According to Jessee, the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act allows for additional recovery to pay triple damages plus attorneys’ fees.

Effler said any damages recovered by his office will be “fairly divided” between the five counties he represents.