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Pfizer Rejected by High Court in Menopause Drug Case

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Pfizer Inc.’s appeal of a verdict for an Arkansas woman who blamed the company’s menopause drugs for her breast cancer, leaving intact a $2.7 million award that may grow with punitive damages.

The justices today let stand a lower court decision upholding that award, which marked the first federal verdict against Pfizer’s Wyeth unit over its Prempro hormone-replacement treatment.

The appeal by Wyeth and Pfizer’s Upjohn unit sought to leverage a different part of the appeals court ruling ordering a new trial on punitive damages, which a jury had set at $27 million. Pfizer argued that the new trial should cover all aspects of the case, including the jury’s finding that the drugs helped cause Donna Scroggin’s cancer.

“While we are disappointed with the court’s decision, it does not change the prior ruling by the appeals court, which affirmed the dismissal of punitive damages as to Upjohn and ordered a new trial on punitive damages for Wyeth,” Pfizer said in a statement.

Scroggin was among 6 million women who took the pills to treat menopause symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats and mood swings. Wyeth faces more than 8,000 lawsuits over the medicines, which are still on the market.

Scroggin and other women contend company executives ignored studies raising questions about the link between hormone-replacement drugs and breast cancer to pump up sales of their drugs.

Health Risks

The Supreme Court action “validates our evidence that shows Wyeth hid the health risks of this drug and the drugs caused breast cancer in thousands of women,” Jim Morris, Scroggin’s lawyer, said in a telephone interview today. “We are looking forward to asking another jury to decide the extent of Wyeth’s wrongful conduct.”

Scroggin took three menopause drugs: Provera, a progestin-laden treatment made by what is now Pfizer’s Upjohn unit; Premarin, an estrogen-based drug made by Wyeth, and Prempro, a combination of the two other drugs introduced by Wyeth in 1996.

Annual sales of Wyeth’s hormone-replacement drugs topped $2 billion before a 2002 study sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health suggested women using the medicines had a higher breast cancer risk. New York-based Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, bought Wyeth last year in a $68 billion transaction.

Jury’s Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case isn’t surprising since the appellate court left the jury’s decisions on liability and actual damages undisturbed, said Carl Tobias, a professor at University of Richmond Law School who teaches classes on mass-tort law.

The denial “is a good sign for plaintiffs going forward” with Prempro claims, Tobias said today in an e-mail.

Wyeth has lost seven of the 11 Prempro cases that have been considered by juries since the cases began going to trial in 2006. The drugmaker got some of those verdicts thrown out at the post-trial stage and or had awards reduced.

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, said Chris Loder, a Pfizer spokesman.

Pfizer’s appeal in the Scroggin case centered on the Constitution’s Seventh Amendment, which guarantees the right to a jury trial in federal civil cases. In a separate line of argument, the company contended that the trial judge should have excluded the testimony of an oncologist who testified that the hormone treatments caused Scroggin’s cancer.

Pfizer shares fell 11 cents to $15.10 at 4:00 p.m. New York time. After the headlines were published, Pfizer shares fell as much as 2.4 percent, from an opening high of $15.38 to an afternoon low of $15.01.

The case is Wyeth v. Scroggin, 09-1123.

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