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Women file suit over controversial diet drug

Eight Florida women join hundreds of other people who are suing a company that made part of fen-phen.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


Claiming they suffered permanent heart and lung damage, eight women have filed suit in Pinellas County against the manufacturer of one ingredient in the controversial diet drug combination fen-phen.

They are among 700 Florida residents who have opted to sue American Home Products Corp. individually in Tampa Bay area courts for punitive damages rather than join a proposed $3.75-billion national settlement that is among the largest personal injury settlements in U.S. history.

Tampa attorney Brenda Fulmer, who represents the eight women, said the national settlement would not adequately compensate those who developed lung problems and certain heart ailments from taking the diet drug.

"A huge group of people will get very little," Fulmer said. "The national settlement is not appropriate for some individual claims."

The suits filed Friday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court allege product liability, negligence, misrepresentation and fraud. Fulmer said American Home and its subsidiaries should have adequately warned doctors of the health problems associated with fen-phen.

Fulmer said her firm, Alley & Ingram, represents nearly 700 other Florida residents -- women and men of all ages -- who plan to sue American Home in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

About 6-million people took the mix of fenfluramine and phentermine, known as fen-phen, after it came out in the mid-1990s. The drugs were withdrawn from the market in September 1997 after a Mayo Clinic study linked the combination to potentially fatal heart valve damage.

More than 11,000 lawsuits have been filed against American Home, which makes fenfluramine -- the "fen" in fen-phen. The Madison, N.J., company sold the drug under the brand name of Pondimin and also made a similar drug, Redux.

Though both drugs had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, their use in combination and for long periods had not been approved by the agency. Some people who took the drugs developed heart valve problems, elevated blood pressure in their lungs, or both.

Fulmer said five of her clients already have died from heart or lung problems stemming from fen-phen use.

Douglas Petkus, a spokesman for American Home subsidiary Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, said Monday he was not aware of the latest round of lawsuits and could not comment on pending litigation.

One of the plaintiffs, Helen Auer of Englewood, does not think she will recoup the cost of her medical bills. Auer, who took diet drugs for three months, said she suffers from a leaky heart valve.

The other seven women who recently filed suit could not be reached or declined to comment.

The first Hillsborough trial is scheduled to begin in October.

American Home Products and attorneys who favor a national settlement worked out a $3.75-billion deal in October. A judge gave preliminary approval to the deal in November, and Petkus said approval is expected in July. Under the settlement, the fen-phen users would get anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1.5-million, depending on their health problems and how long they took the drugs. Some 45,000 fen-phen users have refused the multibillion-dollar settlement and retain the right to sue for punitive damages; about 3,000 live in Florida. Lawsuits have been or will be filed in Pensacola, Orlando and South Florida. Those who are part of the class-action lawsuit may still reject the settlement and sue for compensatory damages but cannot collect punitive damages.

In December, a Mississippi jury awarded $150-million in compensatory damages to five people who said their health problems could be traced to the drugs.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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