On Friday a Federal jury rejected the claims of an Arkansas woman that her usage of a hormone drug, Prempro, was the cause of her breast cancer.
The woman, Linda Reeves, brought the first of an estimated 4500 cases being brought against Wyeth alleging that the commonly prescribed hormone replacement drug, with the brand name Prempro, essentially caused her breast cancer. She admitted at trial that she had not read the warnings on the drug label regarding potential risks of the medicine, but had relied upon the advice and guidance of her doctor as to the appropriateness of the medicine for her symptoms.
As with any other major litigation, the first case sets the tone in the media as to what can be expected, and as long time legal watchers know, most verdicts tend to go to the defendants early on. The Vioxx case was and is unusual in that it resulted in some early plaintiff verdicts that received extraordinary press coverage. The Prempro litigation by contrast has largely flown under the media radar screen, and a search this morning of news sources showed the reporting on the trial results were confined to a few lines on the AP and Reuters wires, the WSJ and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Wyeths defense team, led by Jane Bockus of the firm Clark, Thomas and Winters, led a successful defense of the company by driving home the argument to the jury that the drug at the time it was prescribed was the only effective medication for the prevention of osteoporosis and that both she and her doctor had been adequately warned about the possible risks of the drug.
The plaintiffs, represented by the nationally known and respected team of Attorney Zoe Littlepage and Attorney Rainey Booth were clearly disappointed in the juries findings, and were quoted as saying they felt they had established a clear link between the use of the drug and the cause and or growth of Mrs. Reeves breast cancer.
I'll dig into this case more extensively in the next few weeks, but it would appear at first glance that despite the evidence and arguments presented by the plaintiffs, that the warning label and decisions of the treating physician to prescribe it to the claimant in some manner cleared the defendants of liability in the minds of the jurors. Look for a podcast on this case in the next couple of weeks.
In the bigger picture it would appear that Wyeth has taken a page from Merck, will fight the early cases one plaintiff at a time, and work to reduce the eventual value of claims. Many of the defense firms and tacticians have faulted the drug companies for settling early in the Phen-Fen cases and it would appear that based on how pharmaceutical cases are being defended now, that this will be the favored tactic. I still personally think it is absolutely fraught with peril for the defendants as history typically shows over time that the evidence on bad products only gets worse, and that the value of the cases only goes up. I expect that plaintiffs will go to school on this case, study the jury feed back and learn how to refine their arguments so that juries can get a better understanding of how an apparently dangerous drug was marketed to a potentially vulnerable group of patients.