Pfizer Wins a Review of Punitive Damage Awards in Prempro Case

World’s largest drug maker, Pfizer, persuaded a Pennsylvania appeals court to review an $8.6 million punitive damages award to a woman who blamed her breast cancer on Pfizer’s menopause drugs.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments by Pfizer’s Wyeth unit, claiming that the judge erred in allowing a Philadelphia jury to award punishment damages to Mary Daniel, a former manager at a bank in Arkansas, who sued the drug maker, alleging its Prempro pills caused her breast cancer. Jurors also awarded Daniel more than $1.6 million in compensatory damages on her claim.

Until 1995 many menopausal women combined Premarin, Wyeth’s estrogen-based drug, with progestin-laden Provera, made by Pfizer’s Upjohn unit, to relieve their symptoms. Wyeth combined the two hormones in its Prempro pill.

More than 6 million women took Prempro and related menopausal drugs to treat symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings before a 2002 study revealed their links to cancer. Wyeth’s sales of the drugs, which are still on the market today, topped $2 billion before the release of the Women’s Health Initiative, a National Institute of Health-sponsored study.  “The company is pleased the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear the company’s appeal regarding whether punitive damages are warranted,” Chris Loder, a Pfizer spokesman, said in an email statement this week. “The company has said all along that Wyeth acted responsibly” in its handling of the drug, he added.

Pfizer’s Wyeth and Pharmacia & Upjohn units have lost 10 out of the 18 Prempro cases that juries have considered since trials began in 2006. The most recent verdict came earlier this week when a Philadelphia jury awarded three more women more than $72 million in damages on their claims over the drug maker’s hormone replacement therapies. The drug maker had some of those verdicts thrown out after trial or had the awards reduced. It did resolve some of the verdicts through settlements, while some other decisions are on appeal. It also has persuaded some judges to throw cases out before trial.

In Mary Daniel’s case, jurors found Wyeth’s Prempro and Premarin drugs were a cause of the woman’s cancer and awarded her a total of $10.2 million in damages. A judge in the case later threw out the award.  Earlier this year, a lower Pennsylvania appeals court re-instated Daniel’s jury award after finding the judge in the case did not err in refusing to give a drug maker a new trial. On December 5th, the state’s highest appellate court agreed to review whether Daniel was entitled to receive punitive damages for a product that had been approved by the FDA.

At first, it seemed justice would be served to these drug makers for the harm their products caused to the women who took their drugs. But now, it seems they might get their damage awards reduced. Is this justice?

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