Settlement reached in fen-phen trial

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 21, 1999

FAYETTE – A judge dismissed a $150 million verdict against a diet drug maker Tuesday after lawyers reached a settlement agreement which includes hundreds of similar Mississippi cases.

Sources familiar with the case said the settlement in the fen-phen case, the first in Mississippi to go to trial, was nearly $500 million against drug maker American Home Products. It would be split among about 900 plaintiffs, sources said.

&uot;This will resolve almost all of the cases in Mississippi,&uot; said Joe Mahady, president of AHP’s pharmaceutical division, Wyeth-Ayerst. &uot;I think it’s a good settlement for everyone involved.&uot;

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In the three-week trial, five plaintiffs said AHP’s diet drugs Pondimin and Redux damaged their hearts and lungs, and that the company did not properly warn them of the health risks.

Plaintiffs included Claude Pickett of Natchez, Kenya Tenner Gaines of Fayette, Vinester Williams of Itta Bena, Ruth Bishop of Greenville and Brenda Hamm of Bay Springs.

Defense attorneys maintained throughout the trial that the plaintiffs are not sick and that doctors had warned them of the health risks associated with the drugs.

Redux, a fenfluramine, and Pondimin, a dexfenfluramine, have been linked to pulmonary hypertension, a rare and often fatal lung disease, and valvular heart disease, which causes leaky valves.

During the height of their popularity, the diet drugs were often prescribed in combination with phentermines, which AHP&160;does not make, which is together were commonly known as fen-phen.

It took the Fayette jury only two hours to come back with a verdict on compensatory damages, giving each plaintiff $30 million.

But after lawyers gave arguments for and against punitive damages, both sides worked out the settlement agreement.

Judge Lamar Pickard then granted a defense motion to set aside the jury’s verdict and find for American Home Products.

After the jury’s verdict, plaintiff Vinester Williams of Itta Bena said the case had been &uot;very stressful&uot; and &uot;depressing.&uot;

&uot;It’s very hurtful to know you’ve been harmed and someone’s telling you there’s nothing wrong with you,&uot; said Williams, who had wiped tears from her eyes as the verdict was read.

Williams, 35 and a social worker, said she will now try to get the best medical care possible.

A lot of eyes have been on the Fayette trial because a larger settlement could have been at stake.

Earlier this year, American Home agreed to pay up to $4.83 billion to settle a class-action suit brought by people who said Redux and Pondimin damaged their health.

American Home has not admitted any wrongdoing in the settlement, and it maintains the majority of people who took the drug have not experienced health problems.

Other attorneys involved in similar litigation say they are advising their clients not to take part in the settlement, which has already gotten preliminary approval from a federal judge. American Home could scrap the deal if enough people drop out.

It’s not clear how the Mississippi settlement will affect the larger class-action settlement.

Throughout the three-week trial, the jury heard testimony from doctors, the plaintiffs themselves and company officials.

In the only other verdict to be rendered in a fen-phen lawsuit, Debbie Lovett, 36, of Grand Saline, Texas was awarded $23.3 million in July by a jury for heart damage she suffered after taking fen-phen for more than three months. The case was later settled for less than 10 percent of that amount during an appeal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.