Report on Bechler due release today

Detection of ephedrine likely would lead quickly to product-liability suit

Baseball

March 13, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If there is any mystery remaining three weeks after the heatstroke death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, it likely will be explained this afternoon when the Broward County medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, releases the final toxicology report and microscopic tissue analysis from the Feb. 19 autopsy.

The toxicology report is expected to confirm Bechler ingested the controversial weight-loss aid and stimulant ephedrine before he collapsed at the Orioles' spring training complex on Feb. 16 and died the next day.

The tissue analysis also could reveal factors that may have contributed to the death. Perper already has cited heart and liver abnormalities detected during the autopsy to help explain why Bechler's body temperature spiked at 108 degrees and caused multiple organ shutdown.

Still, the focus of today's report figures to be ephedrine, which has been linked to dozens of deaths and has come under heightened scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration.

Bechler is believed to have taken three capsules of the ephedrine-based supplement Xenadrine -- one more than the recommended maximum dosage -- before taking the field for the Orioles' Feb. 16 workout. If so, the substance almost certainly will show up in his blood, because a blood sample was taken upon his arrival at North Ridge Medical Center just a few hours later.

The presence of ephedrine in Bechler's blood would strengthen Perper's preliminary conclusion that the stimulant was a major factor in the death. The toxicology report also could provide ammunition for the product-liability suit that is expected to be filed against the makers of Xenadrine (Cytodyne Technologies) by the lawyer for Kiley Bechler, the 23-year-old pitcher's pregnant widow.

Perper seemed confident after the autopsy that ephedrine would show up in the toxicology report, but conceded at the time that it was not a certainty. Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke in 2001 after reportedly taking an ephedrine-based product, but no trace of the substance was found in his system.

"I think with what I know, I'm pretty sure it is going to be positive," said Orioles physician Dr. William Goldiner. "What exactly it is positive for, I can't say for sure, but it isn't going to change my opinion of what happened.

"I felt from the beginning that this was a case of a kid taking ephedrine and who had been taking it for a while. Is it possible that if he had eaten before taking it or he had been in the South longer and was more used to the heat, this might have turned out differently?

"Maybe. Nonetheless, the common thread in this thing is, I think, if he didn't take ephedrine, he wouldn't have developed a temperature of 108. He might have passed out, but he wouldn't have died."

If eyewitness accounts of Bechler's using Xenadrine -- combined with the circumstances of his death -- are enough to convince Goldiner and Perper that ephedrine was an important contributory factor, they probably wouldn't be enough to support a lawsuit against the manufacturer of Xenadrine. The toxicology report is the hard evidence that could mean a big-money jury award or out-of-court settlement.

New York attorney David Meiselman, who has said he will file suit for Kiley Bechler, did not return phone calls for this article, but Houston-based product-liability expert Tommy Fibich said this week the toxicology report will be critical to the case.

"The significance of the toxicology is, if you don't find it in the system, you don't have a product-liability lawsuit," said Fibich, who successfully sued the makers of the weight-loss aid fen-phen and is involved in litigation against makers of ephedrine-based products. "If there was no trace, I wouldn't be interested in the case.

"The thing about this product, it metabolizes very quickly through the system. My recollection with Korey Stringer is that they found it in his locker, but it did not show up in the blood test. In that case, they are suing the Vikings for putting him in a life-threatening situation."

Though Meiselman has never ruled out suing the Orioles, it seems unlikely a similar case could be made that they knowingly put Bechler in danger. The club prohibited ephedrine-based products in their minor-league system three years ago and has actively discouraged the use of weight-loss supplements in the majors. Also, workman's compensation law makes it extremely difficult for an employee to win a wrongful-death lawsuit against an employer.

Cytodyne has pointed the finger at the Orioles, previously saying the club 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.

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

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