Thursday, June 24, 1999

Fen-phen settlement monitored


Hundreds locally have filed suits

BY SUSAN VELA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The settlement of a lawsuit in Texas this week bears promise for hundreds of others that have been filed by Tristate residents against Ameri can Home Products Corp., a Madison, N.J.-based company and maker of half of the once-popular diet drug fen-phen.

        “It shows that when there's a serious case, they're settling,” said Stanley M. Chesley, a Cincinnati class- action specialist and co-chairman of an 11-member team representing people suing the makers of fen-phen diet drugs.

        He added that about 3,500 lawsuits nationwide, including several hundred from the Tris tate area, have been filed against American Home Products (AHP).

        “On the one hand, they keep denying responsibility,” he said. “On the other hand, when they face a jury, they settle. (And) they're usually settling on the courthouse steps.

        “There's no question this was a dangerous drug. A lot who thought they did not have a good case (now) will come forward.”

        AHP's drug division Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories is known as the maker of Pondimin — a brand name for fenfluramine, the “fen” portion of fen-phen. AHP has been the target of a flurry of lawsuits since September 1997, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled fenfluramine from the market because of evidence that it may have scarred users' heart valves irreversibly and sometimes fatally.

        Phentermine, the other half of fen-phen, has not been linked to illness. About 6.6 million people have used the diet drug combination. Riverfront Diet Clinic of Covington had about 2,200 people enrolled in its 1996 fen-phen program. Most were from Ohio.

        People from surrounding states were flocking to Kentucky to get fen-phen. Tennessee had banned its use, Ohio allowed prescriptions for only 12 weeks and Indiana had a 30-day restriction.

        Charlie Murdock, 66, of Symmes Township, has been a little shocked to see all of the litigation filed against AHP. He has no regrets about taking fen-phen while he was a Riverfront client about two years ago. He stopped only when his family doctor told him about critical studies on the drug.

        “I have no regrets,” he said. “It did work very well for me.” Most of the lawsuits filed against AHP are federal cases and have been consolidated in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, where Judge Louis C. Bechtle is overseeing all trial preparation and any settlements. Those cases are now in a pre-trial evidence stage.

        The state cases began to go to trial earlier this year. AHP settled the first case April 8, agreeing to pay $500,000. It was a nonfatal case.

        The second settlement came Tuesday. It was a wrongful-death suit, in which the relatives of Mary Marisa Smith contended that use of fen-phen had killed the woman at 35. AHP has not disclosed the amount of settlement.

        Meanwhile, Lexington attorney David Helmers concurs that the settlements indicate the worth of these cases. He is one of three attorneys involved in a lawsuit that has received class-action certification in Boone Circuit Court. AHP, Bariatrics Inc. of Kentucky and Dr. W. Rex Duff of Ashland are the defendants.

        The lawsuit states that the defendants are responsible for many people not receiving adequate warnings.

        “They trusted these companies and the physicians ... and now they're scared to death and rightfully so,” Mr. Helmers said. “The bottom line is that the individuals who took these drugs have suffered threats of injury.”

        Meanwhile, Dr. Fortune Williams of the Riverfront Diet Clinic in Covington has a different opinion. He said Riverfront has not been involved in any of the fen-phen cases.

        He thinks those cases arose from people who were taking more than 80 milligrams of Pondimin a day. Riverfront clients were taking between 20 and 40 milligrams, he said.

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.

       



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