Pfizer Appeals Court’s Order for CEO to Testify at Trial

Pfizer Inc. appealed a judge’s order that Chief Executive Officer Ian Read testify in person at a federal trial over claims that use of its anti-smoking drug Chantix caused a Minnesota man to commit suicide.

The family of Mark Alan Whitely sued Pfizer after his death in November 2007, alleging the company failed to sufficiently warn that Chantix could increase the risk of suicide. The Whitely lawsuit is the first of more than 2,500 Chantix cases pending in federal court in Alabama to go to trial, according to court records.

U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson ordered Read and two other company executives to testify live at the trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 22 in Florence, Alabama. Pfizer asked the federal appeals court in Atlanta to erase her Oct. 4 order as “plainly beyond the court’s subpoena power.”

Johnson’s order violates civil procedure, which “prohibits service of subpoenas more than 100 miles from the courthouse,” Pfizer lawyers said in their appeal. “There is absolutely no overriding need for live testimony here.”

The Pfizer witnesses testified in videotaped depositions and excerpts will be played at the trial, the New York-based drugmaker said in its appeal, filed yesterday and posted by the court today.

“Our company witnesses already have provided hours of deposition testimony,” Amy Schulman, Pfizer’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement. “None of these witnesses should be required to testify in person at this trial.”

‘Enormous’ Burden

“On the flip side, the burden on the Pfizer witnesses -- and in particular to its chairman and CEO -- is enormous,” the company said in its appeal.

Read “is a crucial witness in the Chantix story, and any inconvenience is outweighed by the benefit of allowing the jury to evaluate his testimony in person,” Whitely’s lawyers said in court papers Oct. 1.

The two other employees, Pfizer vice presidents Diana Hughes and Carl Wilbanks, are “sufficiently high ranking” and have been “sufficiently involved” with Chantix to be required to testify live as well, the lawyers said.

The Whitely case and other lawsuits have been combined in a multi-district litigation before Johnson for pretrial evidence-gathering and the first trials.

The lawsuits claim that Chantix causes depression and other psychiatric disorders, some so severe that patients attempt or commit suicide. The plaintiffs allege that Pfizer knew of a link between Chantix and suicide and failed to sufficiently warn patients.

Pfizer Warnings

Pfizer has denied that Chantix was the cause of Whitely’s suicide or that the company withheld information about the drug.

Pfizer has provided warnings on the package insert of reports of suicidal thoughts since 2006, Johnson said in court papers in July. The notice was updated in 2007 and 2008, “culminating in a ‘black box warning’ being placed on the package insert in July 2009,” she said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers contend that Pfizer should have provided such warnings earlier.

Mike Ciresi, an attorney for Whitely’s family, didn’t immediately return a call for comment on Pfizer’s appeal.

Chantix has been prescribed to more than 17 million patients seeking to quit smoking, including 8 million in the U.S., the company said in an e-mailed statement today.

“There is no reliable scientific evidence demonstrating that Chantix causes the neuropsychiatric injuries alleged by the plaintiffs,” according to the statement.

The lawsuit is In Re: Chantix (Varenicline) Products Liability Litigation MDL 2092, 09-cv-2039 U.S. District Court, Northern District of Alabama (Florence).

(Corrects first name of executive Hughes in ninth paragraph of story published Oct. 11.)
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