As a pharmaceutical liability attorney, I was very interested to see that a wave of dangerous drug cases involving the drug Chantix (varenicline) is about to go to trial. Chantix is marketed as an aid for people who are trying to stop smoking, but many users have reported that it causes depression, suicidal thoughts, hostility and other psychiatric problems; some users have even committed suicide. The reports were taken so seriously by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that Chantix now carries a black box warning on the label, warning patients that the drug increases the risk of “serious mental health events.” Numerous lawsuits about this side effect have been filed against Chantix maker Pfizer, and the first was set to go to trial Oct. 22. But as Bloomberg News reported, Pfizer reached a settlement Oct. 18 with the family in the first lawsuit.
The first “bellwether” case, so named because they help both sides predict what might happen in other cases, was filed by the widow of Mark Alan Whitely of Minnesota. Whitely committed suicide after taking Chantix. Judy Whitely sued in November of 2007, alleging that Pfizer failed to adequately warn her husband about the risk of suicidal thoughts and other mental problems. Of the federal lawsuits that are pending, 223 involve claims of suicide and 1,009 involve suicide attempts. Her case was the first of about 2,600 Chantix injury lawsuits, which had been consolidated as multidistrict litigation in Alabama federal court. Of the federal lawsuits that are pending, 223 involve claims of suicide and 1,009 involve suicide attempts. The amount of the settlement was confidential, but Whitely’s attorney said his client was happy. The settlement permits several Pfizer executives to avoid testifying in person; they dropped an appeal of that issue as moot.
It does not appear that settlements are being offered in other cases; the lead law firm in the multidistrict litigation said it had not heard about offers to any of the hundreds of other plaintiffs it represents. The next bellwether case is scheduled for Jan. 22. In that case, Billy Bedsole Jr. alleges that taking Chantix to help him quit smoking caused insomnia, anxiety, depression, erratic behavior, suicidal thoughts and eventually, hospitalization. His lawsuit says he would not have started using Chantix if he had been properly warned of the risk of mental health problems, injury or death posed by the drug. Reports of suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems associated with Chantix surfaced before 2006, when Pfizer first added warnings to the drug’s label. The FDA has issued increasingly strong public health warnings about the drug since 2007, culminating in the black box warning.
As a dangerous drug lawyer, I’ve followed this issue for several years and am pleased that the issue will be aired in court soon. Pfizer may have settled the lawsuit because it truly believes Whitely had a strong case, but I also suspect that the company is pleased that its officers can now avoid testifying in court. Though stopping smoking is a very important way for people to protect their health and prevent lung problems, cancer and heart disease, I suspect most people would agree with Bedsole that Chantix may not be worthwhile if it causes suicide and serious cases of depression. As a defective drug attorney, I agree that Pfizer has a duty to warn patients about this risk as early as possible.
If you believe your family suffered an injury, illness or death because of a drug that didn’t work like it was supposed to, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe. Based in St. Louis, we represent people across the United States who were hurt by a drug that was dangerously designed or manufactured or lacked important warnings. For a free consultation, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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