Supplement maker is target of Bechler suit

Experts: Widow's strategy sound

suing team difficult

February 26, 2003|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The widow of Steve Bechler, the Oriole who suffered fatal heatstroke last week at spring training, plans to sue the maker of the weight-loss supplement her husband used - a strategy that experts say holds the best hope to obtain benefits beyond baseball's standard life insurance.

A lawsuit against the team, a tactic being pursued by the widow of an NFL player who died under similar circumstances in 2001, is a far more difficult case to make. Workers' compensation laws shield employers from liability for most on-the-job deaths.

"We have no further plans at this point - such as suing the Orioles - but we are still researching everything," said the Bechler family's attorney, David J. Meiselman, with Meiselman, Denlea, Packman & Eberz in White Plains, N.Y.

The widow, Kiley Bechler, who is expecting the couple's child in April, hired Meiselman late last week and has expressed a desire to keep others from being hurt by the over-the-counter supplement, ephedrine, he said. All potential targets, including Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, are under consideration for litigation, he said.

Baseball and the union have not agreed to ban ephedrine supplements, as have their counterparts in the NFL.

A case against Cytodyne Technologies of Manasquan, N.J., the maker of the pills found in Bechler's locker, could be filed in a few weeks, Meiselman said.

The Orioles have been "stand-up guys" to the family, Meiselman said. "But if they have to be sued, I will sue them," he said.

Asked about a potential lawsuit against the team, Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said yesterday: "We feel pretty good about the way we have handled things."

Workers' compensation laws prohibit most lawsuits against employers for work-related injuries and deaths. Claims are instead expected to be filed with the state-run workers' compensation commissions. Those insurance programs pay death benefits that are capped at little more than $700 a week and may not even apply in the Bechler case.

The player died Feb. 17 at North Ridge Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The medical examiner's preliminary report concluded that Bechler died from heatstroke, that he probably took Cytodyne's Xenadrine RFA-1 and it contributed to his death. Heart and liver ailments also contributed, the examiner said. Tests to confirm ephedrine use have not been completed.

"He would be a great plaintiff. This is a world-class athlete who shouldn't have died," said Tommy Fibich, a Houston attorney who has 15 suits pending against ephedrine manufacturers on behalf of dead or injured users of the herbal supplement.

Cytodyne issued a statement that blames the player and the team, not ephedrine. "The lawyer Meiselman's statements are reckless and irresponsible and are based on fiction not fact, considering that medical examiner's toxicology report has not been issued. Meiselman is seeking to blame Cytodyne for Bechler's death. The blame clearly lies elsewhere."

The company said the Orioles should have known Bechler had a liver abnormality, which, according to Xenadrine's label, means he should not have been taking the pills, and had a history of heat illness. There is also evidence he may have taken more than the recommended dosage, the company said.

The team shouldn't have allowed Bechler to exercise "without proper hydration and nutrition," it said. The company said it has medical studies proving the safety of Xenadrine RFA-1 when used as directed.

Meiselman disagreed, saying ephedrine was the chief cause of death and it has been implicated in the deaths of at least 88 people and has been banned in Canada. Federal regulators are considering a ban on the supplement or restricting it to prescription-only use. "It's so dangerous and poisonous it should be taken off the shelves," he said.

Cytodyne - which is aggressively marketing a non-ephedrine substitute product - is a defendant in more than a dozen lawsuits alleging injuries caused by ephedrine products. Among them is Northwestern University, which claims the drug contributed to the 2001 death of football player Rashidi Wheeler.

The leading manufacturer of ephedrine products, Metabolife International of San Diego, faces more than 100 lawsuits, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

An Alabama jury last year ordered Metabolife to pay a $4.1 million judgment to four people who suffered strokes or heart attacks after taking ephedrine.

But the record is mixed. A federal court in California threw out a case against the company, saying the science was insufficient to prove the product is unsafe when used as directed.

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