Diet drug trial opens in Fayette

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 1, 1999

FAYETTE – Lawyers for five plaintiffs in a civil case against drug maker American Home Products said Wednesday the company knew its diet drugs could cause serious health problems but kept the information from the Food and Drug Administration.

During opening arguments in a courtroom packed with lawyers, computer equipment and case files, plaintiffs’ lawyer Michael Gallagher told the jury the actions of the nation’s No. 5 drug company were &uot;an absolute misrepresentation.&uot;

&uot;(It) was just as intentional an act as if you fire a gun into a crowded room,&uot; Gallagher said. &uot;You may not know who you are going to hit, but there’s going to be a victim, and there are five victims in this courtroom.&uot;

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Plaintiffs in the case are Claude Pickett of Natchez, Kenya Tenner of Fayette, Ruth Bishop of Greenville, Vinestra Williams of Itta Bena and Brenda Hamm of Bay Springs. Their lawyers say all are suffering from either heart valve disease or pulmonary hypertension, a lung disease, as a result of taking American Home’s diet drugs. They are reportedly seeking $2 billion in damages in the case.

Defense lawyers contend the plaintiffs are not actually ill.

&uot;When all the evidence is in and the smoke clears, the evidence will show that not one of (the plaintiffs) is sick,&uot; said defense attorney Mike Espy in his opening statement.

American Home, which also makes such over-the-counter medications as Advil and Robitussin, manufactured the diet drug Pondimin and marketed a similar drug, Redux.

During the 1990s those drugs were often prescribed for weight loss in combination with weight-loss drugs called phentermines, which American Home does not make or market.

Because Pondimin is a fenfluramine, the name fen-phen applies to the drug cocktail.

Gallagher said in his opening statement that American Home knew Pondimin carried the risk of heart valve disease and pulmonary hypertension. He said the company listed only four cases of pulmonary hypertension on its warning label for the drug, although it knew about more and was required by the FDA to include those known cases.

But Espy said none of the plaintiffs took Pondimin alone; three took Redux and two took the drugs in combination with a phentermine.

&uot;You have to ask yourself why are they complaining about the label of a drug they never even took,&uot; Espy told the jury.

Defense attorney Robert L. Johnson said he would produce evidence at the trial showing each defendant had been warned about possible side effects of taking the fen-phen cocktail.

The trial resumes Monday.