COMMENTARY: Wyeth Lawsuit – Runaway Jury or Runaway Pharmaceutical Company?

by Robert A. Schwartz, Attorney at Law

Oct. 16, 2007

Bob Schwartz Photo

Twelve jurors in a Reno, Nev., trial found that pharmaceutical giant Wyeth’s hormone-replacement therapy drugs caused breast cancer in the three Nevada women who brought the lawsuit. The jury awarded the three women compensatory damages in the following amounts: $10.5 million to Jeraldine Scofield, 74; $12 million to Arlene Rowatt, 67; and $12.5 million to Pamela Forrester, 65. The same jury then awarded the women a collective $99 million in punitive damages. Wyeth’s official response was that the award was an “aberration” and would be appealed.

I agree with many people that that’s outrageous! Not the amount of the awards; women who suffer breast cancer as a result of Wyeth’s hormone-replacement therapy drugs deserve that compensation. What is outrageous is Wyeth’s conduct and attitude toward the safety of its products and the hundreds of thousands of women Wyeth has damaged, injured or killed. What is outrageous is the fact that this company ignored a number of red flags as far back as 1975 that put it on notice that there were some real questions about the cancer risk from these drugs. What is outrageous is Wyeth’s statement after the verdict.

Surely Wyeth doesn’t mean “aberration” as the dictionary defines it: the fact or an instance of being aberrant, especially from a moral standard or normal state; straying from the right or normal way or deviating from the usual or natural type.
By calling the jury’s verdict an aberration, Wyeth is saying that this jury, after hearing all of the evidence, rendered a verdict that strays from the normal or right moral standard. This is Wyeth’s position even when it knew the combination drug of estrogen and progestin caused breast cancer or, at the very least, a proliferation and growth of cancerous cells in women’s breasts. With a net worth of $14.6 billion, Wyeth could have conducted studies and asked questions to find out what these drugs were doing in women’s breasts. Sadly, Wyeth made a decision year after year to put profits over patients.

The one who strayed from the normal or right moral standard was Wyeth when it refused to conduct scientific studies to determine if those red flags were not just warnings but signals that the drugs caused breast cancer or a proliferation and growth of cancerous cells in women’s breasts.

Wyeth’s mission statement defines the company’s purpose: “We bring to the world pharmaceutical and health care products that improve lives and deliver outstanding value to our customers and shareholders.” To achieve this, Wyeth states that it must live by its values of quality, integrity, respect for people, leadership and collaboration and must “do what is right for our customers, our communities, our shareholders and ourselves.”

Wyeth needs to re-read its mission statement and start living it — now.