A decision yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court is good news for hundreds of Ohio women seeking damages from the makers of hormone-replacement drugs that they blame for causing their breast cancer, a Columbus attorney says.
“It’s a nice boost,” said Anne Valentine, part of a legal team representing more than 100 such plaintiffs. “We don’t have any false hope or expectation that these are going to be anything but knock-down, drag-out fights, but it’s good to have that decision.”
The high court left intact a jury’s award of $2.75 million in compensatory damages to an Arkansas woman who had sued Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Upjohn Co., both now subsidiaries of Pfizer Inc., claiming the companies’ widely prescribed menopause drugs caused her breast cancer.
More significantly, the justices rejected Wyeth’s attempt to block a new trial that will be held solely to determine the punitive damages it must pay. The company had argued that any new trial should cover all aspects of the case, including the trial court’s finding that the drugs helped cause Donna Scroggin’s cancer.
A jury awarded Scroggin $27million in punitive damages, but a federal judge struck down that portion of the verdict, saying certain testimony shouldn’t have been allowed at the trial. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ordered the partial retrial.
New York-based Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, said yesterday that although disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling, it is “fully prepared to present its defenses.”
Pfizer said both Wyeth and Upjohn “acted responsibly by conducting or supporting more than 180 studies on hormone therapy’s benefits and risks, keeping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully informed, and providing proper, accurate and science-based information to patients and doctors.”
Scroggin is among an estimated 6million women who took the pills to treat menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and mood swings. In all, Wyeth faces more than 8,000 lawsuits related to the medications.
Dr. Kathleen Lutter, a Columbus gynecologist, said doctors used hormone-replacement therapy for decades to combat the symptoms of menopause.
“We thought that it was a panacea. It was a gift that every woman should have,” Lutter said. “And, if she went on it, it would be something we probably would keep her on for life.”
Attitudes changed in 2002, when the FDA took the unusual step of halting a large study of hormone-replacement drugs before it was complete. Researchers found that the incidence of cancer among test subjects taking the medications was 26 percent higher than among those receiving a placebo.
Logan County resident Mary Ann Downing, now 73, received hormone-replacement drugs for about 15years.
The one-time fitness instructor said she quit taking them nine years ago, when she found a lump in one of her breasts that proved to be cancerous.
“Two weeks after that, I had a mastectomy,” Downing said.
Five months ago, cancer was diagnosed in her remaining breast.
After undergoing another mastectomy, Downing hired Valentine, a partner with the firm Leeseberg & Valentine, to sue Pfizer.
The drugs have had profound impacts on many women’s lives, Valentine said. “Some have died. Some have been unable to work. Some have had their families disrupted, unable to pay their bills.”
Valentine said the lawsuits she has filed on her clients’ behalf should send Pfizer a clear message: “You failed to do the studies. You failed to provide appropriate warnings. You failed to educate the physicians who are giving out your medicines.”
The litigation, she said, “is for money, but it’s also for accountability.”
Lutter, the local physician, said the issue is complicated.
“Breast cancer takes such a long time to develop, and there are so many additive factors other than hormone therapy,” she said.
Doctors still use hormone-replacement therapy to treat the symptoms of menopause, but, now, they typically prescribe a lower dosage, for a shorter time.
Downing said she hopes the pending litigation encourages other women “not to just jump into that without being fully aware” of the risks.
“I have three daughters,” she said. “I have a granddaughter. I would not recommend it to anyone.”
By Andrea Cambern and Marcey Goulder
WBNS-10TV and The Columbus Dispatch