Pfizer Inc. agreed to pay about $330 million to resolve claims that its Prempro menopause drug caused breast cancer, in the first large-scale settlements in eight years of litigation, two people familiar with the accords said.
Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, will settle more than 2,200 lawsuits alleging the company’s Wyeth unit hid Prempro’s cancer risks, the people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the accords. The cases settled for an average of about $150,000, the people said.
“The reported settlement terms are not accurate and beyond that, we do not comment on our litigation strategy,” Chris Loder, a spokesman for New York-based Pfizer, said in a telephone interview today.
The settlements may be a signal that Pfizer is moving to resolve long-standing litigation issues as part of its recent management change, said Les Funtleyder, a fund manager at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York who follows the pharmaceutical industry. Ian Read replaced Jeffrey Kindler as Pfizer’s chief executive officer in December.
The hormone-replacement therapy “litigation has been going on for a long time,” Funtleyder said in a Feb. 4 interview. “The new management may be interested in clearing out these old issues and moving forward.”
Pfizer fell 11 cents to $19.05 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading after dropping as much as 1.6 percent earlier in the day. The shares have risen 8.8 percent this year.
6 Million Users
More than 6 million women took Prempro and related menopause drugs to treat symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings before a 2002 study highlighted their links to cancer. Wyeth’s sales of the medicines, which are still on the market, exceeded $2 billion before the release of the Women’s Health Initiative, a National Institutes of Health-sponsored study.
Until 1995, many menopausal women combined Premarin, Wyeth’s estrogen-based drug, with progestin-laden Provera, made by Pfizer’s Upjohn unit, to relieve their symptoms. Wyeth combined the two hormones in its Prempro pill. Pfizer completed its $68 billion purchase of Wyeth in 2009.
The drugmaker faced more than 10,000 claims that its menopause drugs caused breast cancer prior the settlements, which were reached during the past five months, the people said. That number included more than 8,000 cases consolidated in federal court in Arkansas and other cases in state courts in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Minnesota.
The cases were gathered together before U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2003 for pre-trial information exchanges before trial.
Pfizer officials said in a statement last month that Wilson recently handed down a ruling that may knock out a number of suits filed by women who took Prempro for less than three years.
The Women’s Health Initiative study found that women who took Prempro for more than five years faced an increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke. Plaintiffs’ lawyers had argued that other studies showed women who took the pills for three years or less also were at risk for those ailments.
Pfizer’s Wyeth and Upjohn units have lost eight of the 15 Prempro cases decided by juries since trials began in 2006. The drugmaker got some of the verdicts thrown out after trial or had the awards cut. The company has appealed its losses. Wyeth also has won dismissals of more than 3,000 cases prior to trial.
The company resolved a handful of cases before the recent wave of settlements, including an Arkansas woman’s claims that Prempro caused her breast cancer. In 2008, an Arkansas jury ordered Wyeth to pay a total of $29.8 million to Donna Scroggin over her injuries linked to the drug.
An appeals court ordered a new trial and the drugmaker settled the case before it began. Terms of the agreement weren’t made public.
Earlier this week, a Pennsylvania appeals court ordered Pfizer to pay more than $10 million in damages to a woman who blamed her cancer on Prempro after it reinstated a 2007 verdict against the drugmaker.
Pfizer’s attorneys began negotiating with lawyers representing former Prempro users last summer to resolve their inventories of cases, the people familiar with the settlements said. Sheila Burnbaum, a lawyer at New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, led Pfizer’s negotiating team, the people said.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers who settled their Prempro cases include Robert Schwartz, of Bailey & Galyen in Houston; James A. Morris Jr., a sole practitioner in Austin, Texas; Stephen A. Corr of Mellon Webster & Shelly in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; and Stuart Calwell of the Calwell Practice PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia, the people said.
Schwartz declined to comment on the settlements in a telephone interview. Corr, Calwell and Morris didn’t immediately return calls for comment.
The majority of the cases settled had been consolidated in federal court in Arkansas, the people familiar with the accords said. A judge in state court in Philadelphia last month said that about 450 cases in her court had been settled by the company, the people said.
Pfizer is scheduled to face its next Prempro trial in April in state court in Florida. The family of Loretta Esposito blames the drug for her fatal breast cancer and contends Wyeth officials sold Prempro knowing it posed an increased risk of the disease.
Miller Tabak’s Funtleyder said Pfizer officials may seek to negotiate other Prempro settlements to put an end to the five- year run of trials over the drug.
“It’s really important they get rid of all these litigation issues so they can move forward with their strategy,” he said.
The consolidated case in Arkansas is In Re Prempro Products, 03-CV-015070-WRW, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas (Little Rock). The Scroggin case is Scroggin v. Wyeth, 04-1169, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas Little Rock).
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