Early last year, Kimberly Burl-Marine wanted to slim down by 25 pounds, so she went to a Nutri/System Weight Loss Center in Parkville. In just a month, the Bel Air woman shed 20 pounds under the program.
But soon, the 34-year-old assistant principal in the Baltimore County school system began having severe abdominal pains that eventually landed her in the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital. A short time later, she entered University of Maryland Medical Center to have her gall bladder removed.
Last week, Ms. Burl-Marine filed a $20 million federal lawsuit against Nutri/System Inc., charging that the rapid weight loss irreparably damaged her gall gladder to the point that it had to be removed. In doing so, she became one of hundreds of dieters around the nation -- including a Baltimore man -- to file suit against the company, based in Blue Bell, Pa.
Lawyers for Ms. Burl-Marine and Clinton C. Marshall, a 39-year-old school music supervisor from Baltimore, have filed separate suits in U.S. District Court, claiming that Nutri/System falsely advertised the program as a safe way to lose weight.
The suits allege that Nutri/System knew of the link between rapid weight loss and gall bladder disease and that the company should have labelled its pre-packaged meals with warnings.
"Basically what is involved here is that the weight loss is so rapid that the body cannot properly adjust, and the first thing that is affected is the gall bladder," said Paul D. Bekman, the lawyer for Ms. Burl-Marine and Mr. Marshall.
"In each of the cases, the people had extreme trouble," Mr. Bekman said. "There was no physician monitoring, no medical evaluation of any kind. You have lay people saying, 'How much weight you want to lose? You want to lose 49 pounds in 40 days? OK.' "
But officials and lawyers for Nutri/System deny accusations of negligence and any link between their program and gall bladder disease.
They noted that to date there have been no verdicts against the company and that 18 cases already have been dismissed.
"The action by these lawyers is designed to be calculated sensationalism. Their strategy has consistently been to try cases in the media, instead of the courts," said Kathleen A. Maylath, manager of media relations for Nutri/System Inc.
"Studies, including one in 1989 involving 88,000 women, show that obesity is a major cause of gall bladder disease," Ms. Maylath said in a prepared statement.
"No reliable scientific or medical evidence has demonstrated that a Nutri/System weight-loss program causes gall bladder disease."
Ms. Burl-Marine claims her trouble began within weeks of going to the Nutri/System Weight Loss Center at 1238 Putty Hill Avenue in February 1990.
"She ended up losing 20 pounds before she started having problems," Mr. Bekman said.
After the weight loss, he said, she had recurring attacks of nausea and pain that were so extreme that her doctor, who had diagnosed a gall bladder problem, prescribed a pain killer.
But the problems continued, and she ended up at St. Joseph's emergency room in May 1990.
She was admitted for several days and referred to a surgeon who removed her gall bladder a short time later at the University Medical Center, the lawyer said.
Mr. Marshall's case was filed Sept. 9 in U.S. District Court after being filed initially in Baltimore Circuit Court. Like Ms. Burl-Marine, he is seeking $20 million -- $12 million in damages from both the corporation and local center and $8 million in punitive damages.
According to his lawyer, Mr. Marshall lost nearly 80 pounds between September 1987 and January 1988 while attending a Nutri/System Weight Loss Center at 1700 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.
"He lost 49 pounds in 40 days, and they encouraged him to sign up for more," Mr. Bekman said.
"He lost 20 more pounds in 30 days, and then 10 more pounds in another 30 days."
Mr. Marshall's abdominal problem surfaced in July 1988, and he consulted a physician shortly afterward, Mr. Bekman said. A series of tests revealed that he had gall bladder problems and was given medication, but the problem persisted.
Finally, Mr. Bekman said, Mr. Marshall's gall bladder was removed in March 1989 at St. Joseph Hospital.
"There are a significant number of cases against Nutri/Systems for this very type of problem," the lawyer said.
But Ms. Maylath, the Nutri/System spokeswoman, said that in the first Louisiana case against the company, a federal judge ruled in favor of Nutri/System, finding that the plaintiff did not prove that the program caused her gall bladder disease.
"This is a win on the facts," she said.
"Again, certain lawyers continue to victimize innocent people who may have a health problem related to overweight or obesity," Ms. Maylath said.
"Our concern has been and continues to be for the care and well-being of our clients, who need sound and effective weight-loss programs," she said.