Missoula woman awarded $3.2M in lawsuit against maker of bone-strengthening drug Zometa

2009-10-22T06:30:00Z Missoula woman awarded $3.2M in lawsuit against maker of bone-strengthening drug ZometaBy TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 22, 2009 6:30 am  • 

Jurors slapped a Swiss pharmaceutical company with a $3.2 million verdict Wednesday, wrapping up a Missoula woman's lawsuit that will have bearing on hundreds of cases against the company nationwide.

The jury of six men and six women received the case Tuesday afternoon and deliberated for six hours before retiring for the evening. The panel reconvened Wednesday morning and reached a verdict after less than two hours.

The case, tried over five days, involves claims by Peggy L. Stevens, 57, of Missoula. She filed suit against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. last year, alleging the company was professionally negligent when it failed to disclose health risks associated with one of its medications, a bone-strengthening drug called Zometa.

Stevens has lymphoma and developed serious dental and jaw-related problems after taking the drug for several years. Her attorneys say the company knew patients taking Zometa were vulnerable to a degenerative jaw disorder called osteonecrosis, particularly those patients who undergo invasive dental procedures, like a tooth extraction.

Doctors in Missoula administered the drug to Stevens intravenously for three years before she had a tooth pulled in 2007 and developed the disease. Its symptoms include pain, loosening of teeth, exposed bone and infection.

On a national level, Novartis faces lawsuits from approximately 550 plaintiffs whose cases have been consolidated in a Tennessee federal court and a New Jersey state court. The first of those cases is slated for trial in March 2010 in New Jersey.

Although Stevens' case was never part of that mass tort, the verdict in her favor sets a precedent and will influence the other cases, her attorneys said.

"I think it will have a huge significance," said Terry Trieweiler, a Missoula attorney representing Stevens. "The basic facts regarding Novartis' conduct are the same in every case. In terms of Novartis' failure to adequately warn doctors, those facts are now fairly well established."

Stevens' condition is incurable and will result in lifelong disability, according to her lawsuit. Her case went to trial on Oct. 13 in Missoula District Court with Judge John Larson presiding.

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At trial, Trieweiler said Novartis played down the drug's risks, and obscured and delayed the release of information to the public and the medical community.

"What they were trying to do is get the minimal amount of information out to cover themselves without in any way interfering with the marketing of their drug,"said Trieweiler, a former Montana Supreme Court justice.

Trieweiler argued that Novartis focused its efforts on "delaying disclosure and controlling the public relations fallout that would occur from the disclosure."

The jury awarded Stevens $822,000 in lost income. The remaining balance of the verdict is meant to compensate for Stevens' pain, emotional suffering and the loss of her normal course of life. Stevens worked as a professional nurse at Community Medical Center prior to being diagnosed with osteonecrosis of the jaw, and earned an income of $70,000 a year. Her lymphoma is now in remission.

Joe Hollingsworth, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Novartis, said evidence at trial showed the company "flatly and specifically warned that dental surgery should be avoided," and that it began printing the warnings on labels in 2003.

"The evidence shows that our warning was adequate, make no mistake," Hollingsworth said during closing arguments. "There is no way that a different label would have altered Ms. Stevens' use of Zometa."

The labeling was not printed on the packaging itself, but included in a lengthy booklet inside the box.

"The labeling is on a little folded up piece of paper," Trieweiler said. " If you printed it in 12-point font it would be 22 pages long. You fold it out like an acordion.There are 20 folds in it at least."

Stevens' legal team also showed that Novartis knew about the drug's risks through its own extensive research. The marketing and medical research departments communicated those risks in e-mails, he said.

"We were able to introduce internal e-mails that demonstrated how they actually tried to suppress information as they received it," Trieweiler said.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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