A Wrinkle in the Love Affair with Botox?

Usually, a $15 million dollar verdict tends to raise my eyebrows. Therefore, in light of the recent decision in Dr. Sharla Helton v. Allergan Inc., CJ-2009-2171, District Court, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, it is a good thing that I still have the ability to do that. However, the Plaintiff in that case, Dr. Sharla Helton of Oklahoma City, did not have that ability, thanks to her wrinkle-smoothing Botox injections. Rendered on May 11, this sizable jury verdict came following a three-week trial against Allergan Inc., a Botox manufacturer, after the Plaintiff, who was 47 years old, claimed that she suffered years of pain and weakness after receiving Botox injections.

The jury found Allergan Inc. negligent because the label on the product did not include enough information about potential side effects. The Plaintiff blamed Botox for causing double vision, breathing difficulties and years of constant pain in her hands, arms and feet. She further claimed that the disabling side effects eventually led her to sell her medical practice and step down as the medical director for an Oklahoma City hospital. According to the Plaintiff, the verdict was the “first set in making sure the public is aware of the actual risks of Botox. It’s a stepping stone to protect the public from what the company is hiding.”

So, what is the company hiding you might ask about the dangers of Botox? Nevermind that the official scientific name for Botox – Botulinum Toxin Type A – actually contains the word “toxin.” It is a neurotoxic protein. Also nevermind that Botulinum toxin has been identified by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) as the most lethal substance known to man. Potential use of the toxin as a biological weapon has been explored since the early 1900s! Fortunately for us, the toxin just doesn’t have the stability and capacity to be disseminated by open air over a large area. And Botox is, of course, a variation of the word “Botulism,” which I would venture to guess would be more recognizable to the general public at large.

With that said, how could it possibly be foreseeable to the Plaintiff that there could be some risk to injecting Botox into the body? Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not against Botox therapies, whether for cosmetic use or particularly for its more valuable use to the benefit of patients with muscle and nerve disorders. Maybe my lack of sympathy stems from the fact that the Plaintiff in this instance was actually a doctor (albeit not a cosmetic specialist, but an obstetrician and gynecologist) and presumably would have greater insight into the medical procedure that she selected or, at a minimum, the wherewithal and resources to avail herself of the risks. Or, maybe it was also because it was not the first, second, third or fourth injection over two years that caused the problem. It was the fifth injection that Plaintiff claims did the trick and gave her botulism.

It is interesting that this verdict in a cosmetic use case follows a successful defense win by Allergan Inc. in a case arising from the death of a 7 year-old girl, who suffered from cerebral palsey and used the injections to relax clenched limbs. This is but one example that the sympathy factor does not always win the day. In any event, we have not heard the last of litigation against Botox. At the time that the Plaintiff’s case went to trial, there were 14 plaintiffs standing in line behind her. Allergan has, of course, vowed to appeal. Whatever the ultimate outcome of this or other cases, for the meantime, I will stick to the Pearl Cream.

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