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NASHVILLE — A Tennessee state judge on Wednesday set a 2020 trial date for a "Baby Doe" lawsuit filed by district attorneys general that targets national opioid manufacturers for their role in the deadly narcotic painkiller epidemic.

Sullivan County Circuit Court Judge E.G. Moody scheduled the trial to begin May 18 trial in Kingsport, Tennessee.

The 2017 lawsuit was the first of its kind in the country to rely on public nuisance laws as well as Tennessee's Drug Dealer Liability Act to hit opioid manufacturers. Mallinckrodt LLC and Endo Health Solutions Inc. remain as producer defendants.

Another defendant, Purdue Pharma and an ancillary Perdue company, has sought federal bankruptcy protection under the onslaught of litigation by states and local governments across the U.S. over the companies' practices.

Among Tennessee DAs participating in litigation filed across the state against drug companies is 10th District Attorney General Steve Crump of Cleveland. Hamilton County has not sued.

Judge Moody's action came as national opioid manufacturers and distributors seek a national settlement, a move backed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who in 2018 sought to block district attorneys' lawsuit but later backed off amid a revolt by DAs.

Earlier this month, a $260 million settlement was announced in a federal lawsuit between two Ohio counties and opioid drug makers and distributors.

Gerard Stranch, managing partner with Nashville-based Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, which is representing Tennessee DAs in various litigation, said in a statement that "producer defendants have repeatedly attempted to stop a jury from rendering judgment on their conduct.

"Four Tennesseans are dying of opioid overdoses every day," Stranch added. "While the idea of taking on companies of this size seemed like an impossible task to many, the district attorneys general knew that doing so was the only way to try and reduce the number of deaths and [Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome] births."

Stranch said local prosecutors' "foresight and tenacity has now led to a trial date being set, and we very much look forward to sharing with the jury the data and details we have discovered about these companies' destructive business practices."

The Kingsport Times News reported that an attorney for one drug manufacturer said the May 18 date "is not doable" and suggested an alternative date in September as more realistic. But he later noted that's "not to say there may not still be some issues to derail that."

Moody, the newspaper reported, "encouraged" both sides to be ready in May with scheduled meetings to take place and move the process along.

Earlier this month, Tennessee Attorney General Slatery joined with two other state attorneys general in a conference call with reporters saying the Ohio case was "an important step" in moving toward a 50-state "global" opioid abuse agreement.

The total value of the proposal, which has been pushed by drug companies and distributors, is $48 billion. Some $22 billion of that is cash which would be distributed among states and localities over an 18-year period. There's also $23 billion in the form of free treatment such as Suboxone and about $2 billion in free service by distributors.

But Tennessee DAs say the state share won't be enough to address problems created by the opioid drug industry's actions.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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