Pfizer faces $103 million in Prempro damages

Professor Howard M. Erichson in The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 24, 2009

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Pfizer Inc. has been hit with more than $100 million in two punitive-damage awards - one decided and the other unsealed yesterday - from Philadelphia juries.

Both cases involve Prempro, a hormone-replacement drug made by Wyeth, which recently was acquired by Pfizer. Plaintiffs said the drug was linked to their breast cancer.

The total includes $28 million awarded yesterday to Donna Kendall of Decatur, Ill.

In the second case, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sandra Moss yesterday unsealed a verdict reached earlier this year that awarded $75 million in punitive damages to another Illinois resident, Connie Barton, over her Prempro-linked breast cancer.

"Those are large punitive verdicts, make no mistake about it," said Howard M. Erichson, a Fordham University law professor who has studied pharmaceutical litigation.

About 1,500 of 10,000 similar cases are pending in Philadelphia, a common jurisdiction for large liability cases, attorneys say.

The juries are sending a message that they are angry about the corporate conduct in the cases, Erichson said. The $75 million likely will be reduced because it far exceeds the $3.5 million Barton received in compensatory damages, he added.

Pfizer yesterday questioned the verdicts.

"The company believes that neither the awards of punitive damages nor the liability verdicts were supported by the evidence or the law," spokesman Chris Loder said. The company plans to challenge both decisions.

"The company stands by its belief that its subsidiaries acted responsibly," Loder said.

Plaintiffs' lawyers say the verdicts are further proof that their cases are strong.

The verdicts show that "when jurors hear how Wyeth put huge profits over the safety of patients, they will react with a strong message of outrage," Esther Berezofsky, one of Barton's lawyers, said in a statement.

Tom Kline, cocounsel for plaintiffs in about 40 other Prempro cases, said the punitive awards "showed that juries clearly believed that Wyeth hid the risks of breast cancer from doctors and patients, making the defense of these claims harder down the road."

There have been larger verdicts in pharmaceutical cases involving individual plaintiffs - a Texas jury awarded one plaintiff $253 million, later reduced to $26 million by an appeals court, in litigation against Merck & Co. Inc. over the arthritis drug Vioxx. But yesterday's jury award in Philadelphia nonetheless was significant, another Center City plaintiffs' lawyer said.

"This is a pretty good-sized punitive-damage award," said Sol Weiss, whose firm, Anapol Schwartz, tries pharmaceutical lawsuits in jurisdictions around the country. "The jury believed that the [drugmakers] were not straight with what they knew about the cancer risks."

New York-based Pfizer and lawyers for the plaintiffs even disagreed over how to count wins and losses in hormone-replacement therapy cases to date.

While plaintiffs' lawyers point to recent verdicts in their favor, Pfizer argues that judges have set aside some decisions and plaintiffs have dropped some cases, turning the legal tide in the company's favor.

More than six million women have taken hormone-replacement medicines to treat menopause symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. Until 1995, many patients combined Premarin, Wyeth's estrogen-based drug, with progestin-laden Provera, made by Pharmacia & Upjohn, a company also acquired by Pfizer.

Wyeth, which had not reserved funds to cover losses in the litigation, combined the two hormones in Prempro. The drugs are still on the market. Pfizer, the world's biggest drugmaker, completed the $68 billion purchase of Wyeth on Oct. 15. Pfizer reported net income of $8.1 billion last year on sales of $48.3 billion.

Pfizer shares closed yesterday up 17 cents, or a bit less than 1 percent, at $18.53.

Annual sales of Wyeth's hormone-replacement drugs topped $2 billion before the 2002 Women's Health Initiative study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, suggested that women using the medicines had a higher breast-cancer risk.

Wyeth faced its first punitive award over Prempro in January 2007, when a Philadelphia jury granted damages to Mary Daniel, an Arkansas woman who said the drug had caused her breast cancer. A judge threw out the award seven months later. The case is on appeal, and the amount of punitive damages remains under seal.

In October 2007, jurors in state court in Reno, Nev., awarded a total of $99 million in punitive damages to three women who blamed the drug for their breast cancers. That figure later was reduced to $35 million and is being appealed.

A federal jury in Arkansas awarded Donna Scroggin $27 million in bad-conduct damages against Wyeth and Upjohn over her Prempro claims. An appeals court threw out the award this year and ordered a new trial on the punitive-damage issue.