Pfizer Inc. agreed to pay about $400,000 to settle a lawsuit mid-trial that blamed its Neurontin epilepsy medicine for helping cause a Massachusetts man’s suicide, two people familiar with the accord said.
It’s the first settlement over a Neurontin-related suicide claim. Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, agreed yesterday to resolve allegations by Hartley Shearer’s family in Boston federal court that its Warner-Lambert unit knew the drug posed a suicide risk and failed to disclose it to patients and doctors.
“Pfizer agreed to settle the case for less than its defense costs remaining in this case,” said Rob Haralson, a spokesman for New York-based Pfizer. “Pfizer maintains that it has strong defenses to each of plaintiff’s claims.”
Pfizer faces more than 1,000 lawsuits accusing it of illegally promoting Neurontin for unapproved uses and helping to cause some users’ suicides. The settlement comes a week after another Boston jury ordered Pfizer to pay more than $140 million in damages to an insurer over the drug. Pfizer has denied any wrongdoing in connection with its handling of Neurontin.
Its Warner-Lambert subsidiary pleaded guilty in 2004 to criminal charges filed by the Justice Department in connection with allegations it illegally marketed Neurontin and paid a $430 million fine. Pfizer acquired Warner-Lambert in 2000.
For 16 Months
The 57-year-old Shearer, a part-time lecturer at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, took Neurontin for 16 months before killing himself, according to court filings.
Shearer’s family contends his doctor wasn’t aware of Neurontin’s suicide risk when he prescribed the drug to help deal with pain generated by a 1999 stroke.
Pfizer argued Shearer battled depression for most of his life and was taking a dozen prescription drugs, including an anti-depressant, when he shot himself to death with a .357 Magnum handgun in 2002.
The drugmaker’s lawyers also noted Shearer argued with his wife the day he killed himself and left a suicide note saying it was the last time she would “leave me powerless.”
Ron Rosenkranz, a lawyer for the Shearers, declined to comment when contacted yesterday evening. Today, he told U.S. District Judge William G. Young at a hearing in Boston that the “amount of the settlement, while confidential, is substantially less than the amount reported.”
‘An Iffy Case’
“This is an iffy case,” Young told jurors after announcing the accord. “This is why they settled. Iffy on both sides.” The people who said the settlement was about $400,000 declined to be identified because the terms are confidential.
By prescribing Neurontin as a painkiller, Shearer’s doctor was recommending a so-called off-label use of the drug. While doctors may prescribe a medicine for uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, companies are barred from promoting products for off-label uses.
Dr. Charles King, a former Harvard University business professor, told jurors in the Shearer case yesterday that Warner-Lambert officials used illegal off-label marketing tactics to turn Neurontin into a “blockbuster drug.”
“They took a drug that was expected to generate $500 million over its lifetime and turned it into a drug that sold roughly $10 billion,” said King, an economist who testified for the Shearers as an expert on pharmaceutical- industry marketing practices.
The Shearer suit was the second product-liability case over Neurontin to go to trial.
In July 2009, a Peabody, Massachusetts, family dropped its suit over the suicide of a woman who was taking the drug. The family was in the second day of trial in federal court in Boston when it decided to dismiss the case.
Another jury in Boston’s federal court March 25 said Pfizer must pay Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. $47.4 million for misleading doctors on whether Neurontin was effective for illnesses such as migraines and bipolar disorder.
The jury found the drugmaker violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, and California’s Unfair Competition Law.
The Oakland, California-based insurer is a unit of Kaiser Permanente, the largest U.S. nonprofit health maintenance organization. Under RICO, the amount of actual damages will be tripled to $142.1 million.
Pfizer bought Warner-Lambert for $120 billion in 2000 and Pharmacia for $54 billion three years later.
$430 Million Settlement
Along with the $430 million settlement of allegations over Neurontin, Pfizer also paid $2.3 billion in October 2009 to resolve U.S. Justice Department allegations it illegally marketed the painkiller Bextra and three other drugs.
“When you acquire Warner-Lambert you get Neurontin, and when you acquire Pharmacia you get Bextra, and some of these problems came with the acquisitions,” Jeffrey Kindler, Pfizer’s chief executive officer told the New York Times March 31. “It doesn’t change the facts or our responsibility for them.”
The Shearer case is Shearer v. Pfizer Inc., 07-cv-11428- PBS, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
To contact the reporters on this story: Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware at firstname.lastname@example.org and; Janelle Lawrence in Boston at email@example.com.