By Linda Loyd
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
PHILADELPHIA -- The family of a Texas woman was awarded more than $1 billion Tuesday by a Beaumont jury that found drug maker Wyeth was responsible for her death 4 1/2 years after she took one of the company's "fen-phen" diet drugs.
Cynthia Cappel-Coffey, 41, took the drug Pondimin over a three-month period between 1996 and 1997.
The family's lawyer, John O'Quinn, said Wyeth was negligent and "acted with malice in marketing of this drug by putting its making of money ahead of human life and safety."
But Wyeth's attorneys, who will ask for an appeal, argued during the trial that Cappel-Coffey stopped taking the drug in June 1997 and did not get sick until 4 1/2 years later in 2001. They also argued that if Pondimin had caused her death, which occurred last year, she would have become ill within the first year.
"The case is full of legal and factual errors," said Tim Atkeson, one of Wyeth's trial attorneys in Texas . "We are quite confident that the verdict is going to get reversed."
Tuesday's verdict, however, prolongs the legal costs stemming from the diet drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine that the Madison, N.J.-based company pulled from the market in 1997 after some users developed heart-valve damage.
The verdict Tuesday closes the first fen-phen case to go to trial. The company has settled all other such cases out of court.
Wyeth has set aside $16.6 billion to resolve lawsuits by former fen-phen users. It reached a class-action settlement for $3.75 billion with more than 125,000 former users of the diet drugs in 2000. Another 70,000 fen-phen users opted out of the settlement to take their cases to trial.
Most of the remaining cases allege heart-valve damage as a result of the drugs. The fen-phen cases represent only a fraction of 1 percent of the diet drug litigation, Wyeth said.
Wyeth warned investors in its first-quarter earnings call last week that it had been unable to settle the Texas case, and it might have to take future charges to settle litigation.
Jurors deliberated six days before awarding Cappel-Coffey's family $113 million in compensatory damages and $900 million in punitive damages. The family had asked for $1.1 billion in total damages.
Elizabeth Bernstein, analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago who covers Wyeth, called the $900 million punitive-damages award "absurd. I don't see how this would not be lowered, either by the trial judge or on appeal. I don't think it will stand."
Bernstein said that of the 70,000 fen-phen users who opted out of the class-action settlement, only about 3 percent have had their claims approved, with an average settlement of $125,000 each.
Texas law caps punitive damages at two times lost wages, medical expenses and lost services. In Cappel-Coffey's case, those losses amounted to $1.5 million, which when doubled would have been $3 million, Atkeson said.
But the Texas district judge let the case go to the jury without a cap on punitive damages after the woman's family attorney argued a felony crime was committed because documents had been destroyed in the case.
Wyeth also said Tuesday that the court had precluded the company from presenting evidence about three other diet drugs the woman took after Pondimin, including two that carried label warnings of possible fen-phen damage.
This article contains material from other wire services.