British Drug Manufacturer Takes Big Victory in First "At Bat" for Antipsychotic Drug

British drugmaker AstraZeneca was handed a huge victory this month by a New Jersey jury whose members concluded after six hours of deliberation that the manufacturer provided adequate warnings to the plaintiff’s doctors about the diabetes risk posed by its antipsychotic drug Seroquel. Business Week reports that this was the first of approximately 26,000 claims regarding the drug to reach a jury.

Seroquel, with a reported $4.9 billion in sales in 2009, has been widely utilized for treatment of psychotic disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In the present case, the plaintiff was a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran who took the drug for treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. He is one of thousands of users of the drug who allege that AstraZeneca causes diabetes and that the company failed to adequately warn patients of that risk.

Business Week reports that the jury, which included a lawyer on its panel, determined that the manufacturer’s warnings on the label were adequate to alert users to the diabetes risks associated with the drug. As such, the jury did not issue an opinion as to whether the drug caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s development of diabetes or as to the amount of damages he would have deserved if that were proven true.

Not surprisingly, the huge volume of litigation over the drug has resulted in “millions of pages” of discovery material. The New York Times reports that among those millions of pages were at least two seemingly explosive emails. The first of those, it reports, was a 1997 message from an AstraZeneca official in which he praised the work of the company’s physician for minimizing adverse conclusions regarding the drug in a “cursed” study. Specifically, he reportedly wrote: “Lisa has done a great ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ job!” The second of those emails was written in 1999, two years after the drug was approved for use in the United States. In it, the company’s publications manager reportedly wrote: “The larger issue is how do we face the outside world when they begin to criticize us for suppressing data.”

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said that plaintiffs’ lawyers have been attempting to try the cases in public because they had been unsuccessful in the courtroom. Indeed, two prior Seroquel cases brought before a federal judge in Orlando were dismissed on summary judgment due to a lack of evidence that the drug caused diabetes. AstraZeneca has said that some 2,600 Seroquel cases have been abandoned by plaintiffs’ lawyers to date.

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