Court date scheduled in Md. diet drug suit

Woman says fen-phen damaged her heart

January 01, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When Valerie Wright learned about a weight loss drug from a friend in her car pool, she decided to try it.

Wright, a mother of three from Charles County, lost 20 pounds when she took fen-phen for six months before it was taken off the market in 1997. But she also lost her energy and developed a heart condition that will one day force her to have heart surgery, she says.

"It was like everything changed overnight. All of a sudden, I was too tired to do anything," she said.

Wright, 43, of White Plains is one of thousands of people nationwide - and among at least 20 in Maryland - to file suit against the New Jersey company that marketed fen-phen, American Home Products Corp., alleging that the drug has caused heart damage.

AHP and its pharmaceutical arm agreed in 2000 to settle thousands of suits at a cost of $3.7 billion to $4.7 billion, with individual plaintiffs receiving from $24,000 to $1.5 million, depending on their ages and severity of injuries. But 50,000 people, including Wright, are trying for bigger payouts by requesting trials, according to lawyers familiar with the litigation.

A Mississippi jury awarded five plaintiffs $150 million in 1999. A Texas jury approved $56.5 million for a mother of three last year, although a judge reduced that to $9 million.

Perhaps inspired by such figures, a number of lawyers have placed advertisements searching for potential clients.

`Address those injuries'

"Many people, we're finding out, never knew that they might have been injured and that they should address those injuries," said Robert K. Jenner, whose Pikesville firm sought fen-phen patients in advertisements last month in The Sun.

Court records show that most of the fen-phen suits against AHP in U.S. District Court in Baltimore have settled.

Wright, who is seeking $5 million, is scheduled to have her case heard by Judge Catherine C. Blake, with pretrial motions set for Monday.

These days, Wright is subject to panic attacks, chest palpitations and general fatigue because of a heart that doesn't pump blood properly, according to court papers.

`Time bomb'

"I feel like I have a ticking time bomb in my chest," said Wright, a bookkeeper for the National Gallery of Art.

Fen-phen was a popular prescription for dieters before it was pulled off the market. It's made from phentermine, fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, individual drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Public demand grew in the early 1990s, and it was prescribed to about 6 million people by doctors, diet centers and psychiatrists.

But after highly publicized studies linked the drug combination to heart and lung illnesses, the FDA prodded pharmaceutical companies to withdraw it from the market Sept. 15, 1997.

David J. Shuster, Wright's attorney, said her case is unique because Wright had an echocardiogram soon before she began taking fen-phen and the test showed she had a healthy heart. Most plaintiffs didn't have an echocardiogram test before taking the drug, he said.

Experts agree

He said that AHP's medical expert agrees with his expert's conclusion that Wright probably would not have developed heart problems if she had stayed away from fen-phen, for which she received a doctor's prescription.

"Our position here is, that there is no dispute," said Shuster.

AHP's lawyer, Raymond G. Mullady Jr., declined to comment on the case and referred questions to a spokesman for AHP's pharmaceutical arm, Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories.

Doug Petkus, a Wyeth-Ayerst spokesman in Radnor, Pa., said that the company has taken steps to see that people with medical claims are compensated.

About 300,000 people who took the drug and experienced heart problems have registered to collect benefits as part of the settlement approved in 2000 by U.S. District Judge Louis Bechtle in Philadelphia, Petkus said.

Anticipating having to pay more claims, AHP has set aside $13 billion to handle its fen-phen litigation nationwide, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

Shuster said that in many of the cases tried, plaintiffs have focused on AHP's failure to warn patients about the health risks posed by fen-phen.

He said if Wright's case goes to a jury, he will present evidence to show that AHP knew of risks associated with the drug mixture as early as 1996, but failed to alert the public.

"There was no warning label, and there should have been," Shuster said.

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