Fen-Phen Makers Agree to Pay $4.83 Billion

Millions of Americans who took the controversial diet drug fen-phen will collect up to $4.83 billion as part of a settlement reached Thursday between American Home Products and thousands who sued the manufacturer after suffering debilitating health problems.

The settlement, potentially open to as many as six million people who used the combination drug, will include compensation for patients who say they were injured by it and for future medical monitoring for those who are still healthy.

Althea Floyd, 42, of Opa-locka, said Thursday she felt too lousy to feel good about the stunning legal victory. Floyd, who says she suffers from chronic fatigue and mental health problems after taking fen-phen in 1997, said: “I want to thank the Lord that somebody did hear us, but it’s not going to make up for what has happened to my life.”

Once a federal judge in Philadelphia approves the settlement, payments could begin later this year.

South Florida attorneys representing hundreds of people who sued American Home Products said they were pleased with the settlement, but still need to read the fine print to find out how much each plaintiff will be entitled to collect. The maximum is $1.5 million.

“Any global settlement in a mass tort case is significant,” said Hallandale attorney Charles Mindlin, representing 300 clients who filed about 200 suits. “The question is, whether it’s significant in terms of how much my clients are going to receive.

“Of course, I’m pleased to the extent that American Home Products has faced up to its responsibility and I’m pleased to the extent that the people who suffered are going to receive some compensation. But I can’t say how much each individual claimant is going to receive. I doubt anybody knows at this point.”

Miami attorney Ervin Gonzalez, who filed a Florida class-action suit and 25 personal injury cases against American Home Products, said he will review the settlement before deciding what’s worthwhile for his clients.

“The bottom line is, if they stand to do better in state court with an individual jury trial, they’re going to pursue that course,” Gonzalez said. “In essence, they’re treating everybody the same. If you have a serious injury case, that case needs to be treated individually.”

Some legal experts say that a Texas case involving a woman who won a $23.4 million judgment against American Home Products in August helped compel the Madison, N.J.-based drug maker to settle with thousands of others.

American Home Product’s Chairman John R. Stafford called the settlement “fair and equitable.”

“It offers peace of mind to those who used the drugs and permits the company to move beyond the uncertainty and distractions of litigation,” Stafford said.

American Home made fenfluramine, the “fen” in the fen-phen combination, and gave the drug a brand name of Pondimin. It also made Redux, a chemical cousin. In September 1997, the Food and Drug Administration pushed for their withdrawal after a Mayo Clinic study linked the fen-phen combination to potentially fatal heart valve damage.

The settlement is open to anyone who used Pondimin or Redux in the United States, whether or not they filed suit.

About 11,000 suits have been filed against American Home over the drug, making it one of the largest product liability cases ever in the United States. The settlement terms call for payments to continue for about 15 years.

The settlement covers all claims except for patients who say they suffer from primary pulmonary hypertension, a rare but serious lung disorder.

Payments to be made during the next two years are expected to total $1.85 billion.

The settlement includes a $1 billion fund to pay for medical monitoring and $2.55 billion fund to pay for injuries and $200 million in plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

With interest, the total cost will come to $4.83 billion.

A toll-free telephone number (1-800-386-2070) has been established to provide information on the settlement.

Some doctors were stunned that the suit was settled in the face of recent studies that seemed to debunk any correlation between fen-phen and heart valve damage. Those results echoed what Dr. Maureen Lowery, associate professor of cardiology at the University ofMiami, saw when she looked at the sonograms of fen-phen takers referred to her after the drug was pulled to check for potential problems.

“I can’t believe it was settled when two articles showed the whole thing was bogus,” Lowery said. “We got almost 200 and we saw nothing. I kept saying why aren’t we seeing it if this is so damaging? . . . I’m amazed.”

Lowery said recent studies showed that patients on fen-phen didn’t seem to have a higher rate of heart valve problems than the general population.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald