Pfizer Inc. faces a Texas trial over its hormone-replacement drugs after a court overseeing lawsuits over the medicines sent 200 cases back to their home courts.
A judge in Galveston, Texas, last week set a May 2011 trial date for Karen Zahn’s claims against Pfizer’s Wyeth unit. Zahn says in her suit that the Prempro menopause drug helped cause her breast cancer. It’s one of the first of more than 8,000 lawsuits over the medicine consolidated in federal court in Arkansas to be returned for trial, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
U.S. District Judge William Wilson in Little Rock, Arkansas, is supervising pretrial proceedings in the cases against Wyeth and Pharmacia & Upjohn, another Pfizer unit. He returned the 200 cases to their courts in March and told lawyers to get another 400 ready to be sent back later this year.
“Pfizer is now going to have to gear up and hire lawyers all over the country to try these cases,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond law school who teaches classes on mass-tort law. “That makes things more expensive and may provide some incentive to settle.”
More than 6 million women took the 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, topped $2 billion before the Women’s Health Initiative study concluded they posed an increased breast-cancer risk.
Until 1995, many menopausal women combined Premarin, Wyeth’s estrogen-based drug, with Upjohn’s progestin-laden Provera, to relieve their symptoms. Wyeth later combined the two hormones in its Prempro pill.
Officials of New York-based Pfizer said while Wilson has sent back some cases, he refused plaintiffs’ requests to send back all the suits at one time.
“No decision has been made about how many additional cases will be remanded or when,” Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder said in an e-mailed statement. It also isn’t clear how many of the remanded cases will go to trial, he added.
For example, plaintiffs May 25 dismissed a case filed by Linda Cardwell that Wilson sent back to a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Loder noted.
Both sides still must exchange case-specific information on the remanded claims, Loder said. Pfizer lawyers also may ask judges to throw some cases out.
Wilson is overseeing cases as part of the multidistrict litigation system, which allows suits filed in courts around the U.S. to be consolidated before a single judge for pretrial hearings.
Saving on Expenses
Once pretrial information exchanges are done, the cases are sent back to the courts where they were originally filed for trial. Consolidation cuts down on expenses for both sides.
Such consolidations often lead to so-called global settlements of litigations over drugs. In 2000, Wyeth agreed to a $3.76 billion accord to resolve suits over its fen-phen diet combination after the cases were consolidated before a federal judge in Philadelphia.
Loder refused to comment on whether Pfizer will seek to settle the remaining Prempro cases before Wilson. The company faces at least 8,000 Prempro claims, Wyeth officials said in a 2009 regulatory filing.
“Pfizer will continue to vigorously defend its hormone therapy medicines,” he said in a statement. “We do not comment on the number of cases pending, nor do we comment on our legal strategy.”
Zoe Littlepage, a lawyer for women suing over the menopause drugs, said she expects to have many of the 200 cases set for trial within the next 12 months. She estimates there may be more than 13,000 Prempro cases pending before Wilson and state court judges in Philadelphia.
“Most of the hard work has been done on these cases, and it’s time for women to get their days in court,” she said.
Littlepage represents Zahn, a retired school receptionist from Manvel, Texas. The 57-year-old woman took Prempro for almost three years starting in January 1999. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2002.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston on June 9 set the trial of Zahn’s suit in Galveston for next May 16, Littlepage said.
Wyeth has lost seven out of the 11 jury trials over the menopause drugs. The drugmaker got some of those verdicts thrown out at the post-trial stage and or had awards reduced.
3,000 Cases Dismissed
Pfizer also has won dismissals of more than 3,000 cases at either the pretrial stage or after the cases have been set for trials, Loder said.
A judge in Philadelphia refused last month to throw out a $9.4 million jury award to a woman who blamed Prempro for her breast cancer. The case is on appeal.
Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, completed its $68 billion purchase of Wyeth last year. It acquired Upjohn in 2003 as part of a $54 billion buyout of Pharmacia Corp.
Upjohn has lost all three cases juries have considered over Provera. A Pennsylvania judge ruled last month the Pfizer unit deserved a new trial in a 2007 case that ended with a $1.5 million jury award.
The case is In Re Prempro Products, 03-CV-015070-WRW, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (Little Rock).