Judge won’t let Pfizer rid itself of inherited fen-phen scourge

Pfizer just can’t get rid of the specter of fen-phen. Fifteen years after the diet drug was removed from the market over serious health concerns, litigation lingers and the drugmaker’s move to kill that off fell short yesterday.

Pfizer has reserved $21 billion for fen-phen litigation over the years but hoped to have remaining suits dismissed. But a judge in Philadelphia, where most of the suits are consolidated, wasn’t buying it. He said plaintiffs can use studies from experts that indicate that fen-phen can instigate primary pulmonary hypertension, even more than a decade after consumers stopped taking the appetite suppressant. Pfizer tells Bloomberg that it is weighing its legal options.

Pfizer bought the problem when it acquired the drug’s developer Wyeth in 2009, 12 years after fen-phen was banned in the U.S. More than 6 million prescriptions had been written when it was on the market, Bloomberg says, and at one time there were more than 175,000 claims that the combo diet drug had caused health problems, sometimes leading to early deaths.

Wyeth originally set up a $1.3 billion fund in 2004 to cover the potential losses, but over the years that escalated as litigation and potential liability grew. By the time Pfizer entered the picture, the fund was at $21.1 billion.

Of course, lingering litigation is common to many drugmakers. Pfizer in June, for example, reported in a financial filing that it had paid out nearly $900 million on about 6,000 injury cases related to the hormone replacement Prempro and had 

Lawyers of Big Tobacco Lawsuits Take Aim at Food Industry

Don Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, took in hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago after suing Big Tobacco and winning record settlements from R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers. So did Walter Umphrey, Dewitt M. Lovelace and Stuart and Carol Nelkin.

Ever since, the lawyers have been searching for big paydays in business, scoring more modest wins against car companies, drug makers, defective medical devices, brokerage firms and insurers. Now, they have found the next target: food manufacturers.

More than a dozen lawyers who took on the tobacco companies have filed 25 cases against industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America.

The suits, filed over the last four months, assert that food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients. While there has been a barrage of litigation against the industry in recent years, the tobacco lawyers are moving particularly aggressively. They are asking a federal court in California to halt ConAgra’s sales of Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes.

“It’s a crime — and that makes it a crime to sell it,” said Mr. Barrett, citing what he contends is the mislabeling of those products. “That means these products should be taken off the shelves.”

The food companies counter that the suits are without merit, another example of litigation gone wild and driven largely by the lawyers’ financial motivations. Mr. Barrett said his group could seek damages amounting to four years of sales of mislabeled products — which could total many billions of dollars.

“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.”