Opioid lawsuit sparks controversy in Shelby County

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Lawyers for Shelby County Commission filed a massive lawsuit Thursday against pharmaceutical companies, drug distributors, and some doctors over the opioid epidemic. But the lawsuit brought an unexpected political controversy of its own.

"This isn't something that's in a compact box. This has ongoing ramifications," Shelby County Commission Chairwoman Heidi Shafer said.

Shafer was flanked by some of her colleagues Thursday morning, as she announced legal action filed on their behalf targeting groups and individuals they say pushed pills in Shelby County. The action aims to recoup former and future expenses.

The tort lawsuit filed by the commission is 250 pages long. It names multiple pharmaceutical companies, drug store chains, and at least four out-of-state doctors. The suit said Shelby County spends millions each year to provide and pay for services on behalf of residents addicted to opioids. It also claims aggressive marketing strategies and corporate greed are responsible for the epidemic.

Commissioners Terry Roland, Reginald Milton, and Shafer said the county needed to act on its own instead of waiting for the Tennessee Attorney General to file a statewide case.

"If we sue in state court, then we have a seat at the table," Roland said.

Commissioners have been discussing filing a lawsuit of this type for months to recoup money they say the county has paid out in medical and police costs because of the opioid epidemic.

But not all county officials were pleased with Thursday's announcement. County Mayor Mark Luttrell arrived minutes before the news conference and voiced his displeasure.

"What strikes me this morning, this is not speaking for the county commission," Luttrell said.

Luttrell said he doesn't think the action Thursday is legal, namely because the full commission hasn't voted on authorizing it. Shafer maintains it is legal.

WMC Action News 5 learned of at least two commissioners who said they didn't know the news conference Thursday morning was taking place. One expressed frustration over the announcement.

Luttrell said the county attorney has been in the process of speaking to lawyers to vet them on pursuing an opioid lawsuit with all county departments on board. He went on to say the action Thursday was unexpected.

"It troubles me when we see an issue like this politicized," Luttrell said.

Commissioners meet Wednesday, November 8 for regularly scheduled committee meetings. The issue will likely be discussed and debated during that meeting.

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