A lawsuit against a Swiss pharmaceutical company went to trial last week in Missoula, but a verdict in the case could have national significance for hundreds of plaintiffs suing the company in a mass tort.

Peggy L. Stevens of Missoula 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.

Stevens, who has lymphoma, developed severe dental and jaw-related problems after taking Zometa, a bone-strengthening medication manufactured by Novartis. 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 root canals or tooth extractions.

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

"Instead of disclosing concerns about this relationship [between dental work and the jaw disorder] in a timely fashion, Novartis focused on obscuring the causal relationship, delaying disclosure and controlling the public relations fallout that would occur from the disclosure," attorneys wrote in a pre-trial brief.

Stevens' condition is incurable and will result in lifelong disability, according to the lawsuit. Her case went to trial on Oct. 13 in Missoula District Court and closing arguments will likely begin on Tuesday.

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.

Unlike a class action lawsuit, wherein a large group of plaintiffs brings a claim collectively, a mass tort means the cases are closely related but exist independently. Because the cases are so similar, the outcome of the initial few trials might set a tone and determine how the remaining cases will be resolved.

Although Stevens' case was never part of the mass tort, her legal team is drawing expert medical testimony from the same witnesses who will be on hand during the trials in New Jersey and Tennessee.

One such witness is Dr. Robert Marx, chief of the division of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Miami University. Marx is the foremost authority on the relationship between Zometa and osteonecrosis of the jaw, and will take the stand on Monday.

Linda Morris, 60, of Anchorage, Alaska, is a plaintiff in the mass tort. She has advanced breast cancer and says she took Zometa monthly for five years.

"Now I'm losing my teeth and my mouth is always infected," she said. "There's no cure for it and you can't wear dentures because your jawbone is so weak. I've already lost five teeth and the rest will go eventually."

A California attorney representing Morris attended portions of Stevens' trial last week because a jury verdict could bear on the hundreds of other cases - either by emboldening the drug company's defense or strengthening the cases for individual plaintiffs.

"It could set precedent," Morris said.

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

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