Pfizer Settles Neurontin Suit Over Minister's Death

Pfizer Inc. agreed to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging its Neurontin epilepsy medicine caused a retired minister to commit suicide two months after he started taking the drug.

Lawyers for New York-based Pfizer, the world’s biggest drugmaker, told a judge in Nashville, Tennessee, they resolved claims by the family of Richard Smith, which were set to go to trial today. It’s the second settlement of claims that officials of a Pfizer unit knew the epilepsy drug posed a suicide risk and failed to disclose it to patients and doctors.

“I’m very pleased the case has been resolved,” U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger told lawyers for Smith’s family and the company today. The terms weren’t disclosed. Smith, 79, was a retired Church of Christ minister, according to court papers. He was taking the drug to deal with chronic pain, not epilepsy, the filings show.

Pfizer faces more than 1,000 lawsuits accusing it of illegally promoting Neurontin for unapproved uses and helping to cause some users’ suicides. In March, a Boston jury ordered Pfizer to pay more than $140 million in damages to an insurer over its marketing practices in connection with the drug. Pfizer has denied any wrongdoing in connection with its handling of Neurontin.

‘Great Sympathy’

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 bought Warner-Lambert for $120 billion in 2000.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Smith family to resolve this case as it avoids the time and expense of a trial,” Chris Loder, a Pfizer spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We have great sympathy for the Smith family and respect their desire for privacy regarding the outcome of the case.”

By prescribing Neurontin as a painkiller, Smith’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.

As part of the guilty plea, Warner-Lambert officials acknowledged the company engaged in “deceptive off-label marketing” of Neurontin, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said in 2004.

‘Snake-Oil List’

A former Warner-Lambert medical liaison testified in an earlier Neurontin suit he was trained to market the drug to doctors for uses beyond those approved by regulators. Dr. David Franklin, who won a $25 million whistleblower suit against the drugmaker over the medicine, said he was given a “snake-oil list” of unapproved uses to help pump up Neurontin’s sales. Franklin had been set to testify in Smith’s case.

Smith, who worked part-time as a service manager at a Nashville office-machines store, began taking Neurontin in March 2004 to deal with chronic pain tied to back and neck surgeries, according to court filings. Lawyers for his family say in the filings that Warner-Lambert officials didn’t properly warn Smith’s doctors the drug had been found to cause depression and suicidal thoughts in some users.

‘Forgive Me’

In May, Smith killed himself with a gunshot to the head, according to the filings. In a note he left to his family, Smith indicated he was tired of being in pain.

“Forgive me; I cannot go on like this, I cannot have my body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, cut on anymore,” Smith said in the note. “I have talked to God all night and he understands.”

Lawyers for Smith’s family said he’d told relatives prior to his suicide that the Neurontin “was making him feel not himself,” according to court filings. “Mr. Smith’s death was inexplicable to family members because Mr. Smith was a godly man and he knew suicide was wrong,” they added in the filing.

Pfizer’s lawyers countered in their filings Smith suffered through “numerous surgeries” which left him dealing with “increasing pain.” The retired minister told his family he “wished he could die because of the pain and the depression,” the filing added.

The case is Ruby Smith v. Pfizer Inc., 05-cv-11515-PBS, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee (Nashville).

To contact the reporter on this story: Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware, at jfeeley@bloomberg.net.

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