Woman Wins Prempro Breast Cancer Suit

A Philadelphia jury returned a sealed punitive-damages verdict Monday against drug maker Wyeth Pharmaceuticals after finding a link between a woman's breast cancer and the hormone-replacement drug she took.

Connie Barton's case is one of a handful of Prempro lawsuits to go to trial out of several thousand filed across the country. About 1,500 are pending in Philadelphia.

At Wyeth's request, the amount of Barton's punitive award was sealed pending the verdict in a second Prempro case underway in the same courthouse. The jury had awarded Barton $3.75 million in compensatory damages on Friday and found the company willfully hid evidence of a cancer link, prompting the deliberations Monday on punitive damages.

"They knew back in the 1970s that these drugs had the potential to cause breast cancer, so they didn't have the studies done," said Esther Berezofsky, one of Barton's lawyers. "When bad study results came out, Wyeth consistently downplayed the results, tried to discredit the results, tried to neutralize the critics."

She said she was pleased by the verdict, which was shared with lawyers but is subject to a temporary gag order.

Barton, 64, a retired hospital records clerk from Peoria, Ill., took Prempro for five years before her 2002 cancer diagnosis.

"I'm glad I got to tell my story," said Barton, who testified twice during the six-week trial.

Wyeth, in court arguments, told jurors that women are now fully informed of the risks and benefits of Prempro, a combination estrogen-progestin pill.

Wyeth no longer lets its consultants ghostwrite medical journal articles, does not promote off-label drug use and has changed internal rules on gifts to doctors and other policies, a lawyer said.

"The conduct that you disapproved of, obviously by your verdict, no longer takes place," lawyer Lauren Handler told jurors as she argued against punitive damages.

Sales of the drug have plummeted since 2002 when a large federal health study, the Women's Health Initiative, was stopped when researchers saw more breast cancers in those on Prempro.

A study this year shows that lung cancer seems more likely to prove fatal in women who are taking the combination drug.

"When the prescriptions plummeted, so did the rates of breast cancer," said Berezofsky, who said that 200,000 women who got breast cancer could have avoided it had they not taken Prempro.

The handful of other Philadelphia Prempro cases to reach a verdict also went for the plaintiff, but judges later found insufficient evidence to support the verdicts. The cases are all on appeal.

In an Arkansas case, a federal judge threw out a $27 million punitive-damage award, saying he should not have allowed certain expert-witness testimony, while upholding a $2.75 million compensatory award.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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