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Diet Drug Maker Must Pay $23M

In the first case involving the diet-drug combination fen-phen to reach a verdict, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports jurors found pharmaceutical giant American Home Products Corp. liable for a Texas woman's heart ailment and awarded her over $23 million.

Debbie Lovett, 36, blamed the nation's seventh-largest drug maker and subsidiary Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories for heart-valve damage she claimed she suffered after taking the drugs for more than three months starting in October 1995.

After three days of deliberation, jurors Friday determined the company was fully liable for Lovett's injuries.

American Home Products Corp. stopped marketing fen-phen in Sept. 1997.

The award included $2 million for Lovett's physical impairment and future medical care and $20 million in punitive damages.

Attorneys for Debbie Lovett said that their best weapon was evidence indicating that American Home Products tried to suppress concerns and evidence that the diet drug Pondimin could cause heart valve damage.

"They had teams of people whose sole job it was to minimize the warnings," said Kip Petroff, one of Lovett's lawyers. "[They did] whatever they could do to convince the FDA the warnings didn't need to be strengthened." Petroff said the company knew of dozens of reports of heart damage in patients taking the drugs, but did not warn the FDA or doctors.

Lovett had sought unspecified damages, but her attorneys encouraged jurors to award a judgment large enough to punish the drug maker, which reported second-quarter profits of $399 million.

American Home Products marketed Pondimin, the brand name for fenfluramine, the "fen" part of fen-phen, and its chemical cousin Redux until September 1997. That was when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pushed for their withdrawal after a Mayo Clinic study linked the drugs to potentially fatal heart-valve damage.

Fenfluramine had been sold since the 1970s but became widely used in the 1990s when doctors prescribed it in combination with phentermine. When taken alone, phentermine was never associated with health problems. It remains on the market.

Lawyers for Madison, N.J.-based American Home Products argued that Lovett was seeking compensation for a health condition she had before taking the drug and said her obesity was a bigger threat than the drug.

"Obesity is a serious health risk," attorney Joe Piorkowski said in closing arguments. "This is not a dangerous product. The fact that it is not on the market [now] doesn't mean it was a dangerous product at the time. The benefits outweighed the risk."

Like millions of other women, Lovett took the drug to lose weight. What she got instead, shsays, is a lifetime of heart problems. Her attorneys cited three medical studies to support her claim.

More than 3,100 fen-phen cases have been filed across the nation. Other cases are pending and some, including several that had already proceeded to trial, were settled.

Southern Methodist University tort professor Ellen Pryor said the verdict in the case has implications for all cases that follow, especially since damages were awarded.

"That has a big effect in later valuations of similar cases down the road," Pryor said. "Even in one case, it plays into how the parties will evaluate the long-haul litigation."