Tylenol lawsuit is settled prior to going to trial

May 14, 1991|By New York Times News Service

CHICAGO -- Almost nine years after seven Chicago-area residents died from swallowing Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide, the manufacturer agreed yesterday to pay an undisclosed sum to the families of the victims just as the case was going to trial.

Details of the settlement were sealed by Judge Warren Wolfson of Cook County Circuit Court, and neither the families' lawyers nor the company would say what form the compensation would take.

But Bruce Pfaff, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, described the agreement as "a very favorable settlement for my clients."

The out-of-court settlement brings to an end all litigation surrounding the poisonings, which remain one of the country's great unsolved mysteries. It was reached as jury selection was to begin in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the manufacturer, McNeil Consumer Products Co., a division of Johnson & Johnson, in Cook County Circuit Court.

In agreeing to the settlement, the manufacturer stood by its argument that it had nothing to do with the poisonings and that it was as much a victim as the people who died.

"Though there is no way we could have anticipated a criminal tampering with our product or prevented it, we wanted to do something for the families and finally get this tragic event behind us," said Robert Kniffin, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson.

When the lawsuits were first filed in the mid-1980s, several of the families were seeking from $10 million to $15 million for wrongful death, pain and suffering and funeral expenses.

Philip H. Corboy, another of the families' lawyers, said that a portion of the settlement would be in the form of annuities to pay the college costs of the victims' eight children.

"It is more than adequate compensation to protect these children for whatever needs they have," Mr. Pfaff said.

The end of the litigation does not solve the mystery behind the poisonings in late September 1982 when four women, two men and a 12-year-old girl swallowed adulterated Tylenol bought in the Chicago area.

The authorities know that someone opened the capsules and replaced some of the acetaminophen with cyanide and returned the capsules to the shelves, but they do not know who did it or why.

James Lewis, a tax consultant, admitted sending an extortion letter to Johnson & Johnson, of New Brunswick, N.J., demanding $1 million "to stop the killing." He is serving a 10-year federal

prison sentence but has not been charged with the murders.

[Lewis remains the prime suspect in the deaths, the Associated Press reported, quoting Illinois state police.]

["There really haven't been any active leads for years," Illinois State Police spokesman John Pastuovic told the AP last week. "As a lead comes up, we have someone assigned to it."]

In their lawsuit, the families' lawyers contended that McNeil had been careless in its packaging and that it should have known the product could have been tampered with before "putting it into the stream of commerce."

Yesterday, the families' lawyers praised the manufacturer for the swift action it took after the poisonings, recalling 22 million bottles of Tylenol capsules within days and introducing tamper-resistant tablets shaped like capsules within months.

"They have acted in the same responsible way they acted after the occurrence of Sept. 29, 1982," Mr. Corboy said, "although it took a little longer to make life easier for the victims' families for deaths which they had nothing to do with. Liability will never again be brought into the forefront. The public has already been protected. The product has been changed such that it will never happen again."

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