Court Upholds $21.6M Award in Stevens Johnson Syndrome Drug Case

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on May 30, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a monumental products liability verdict in New Hampshire recently. The verdict is the largest jury verdict in state history, reports the New Hampshire Union Leader.

The lawsuit was filed against Philadelphia-based Mutual Pharmaceutical. Plaintiff Karen Bartlett was awarded $21.6 million after a medication she used for shoulder pain caused toxic epidermal necrolysis, or Stevens Johnson Syndrome, a life-threatening condition that involves the detachment of the top layer of skin from the lower layers. Bartlett suffered burns to 60 to 65 percent of her body and is almost blind.

Mutual appealed, claiming that $21.6 million was excessive. In particular, the pharmaceutical company criticized the $16.5 million awarded for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury award, finding that the injuries suffered by Bartlett were horrific.

The crux of the issue was whether the drug, sulindac, should have ever been put on the market by Mutual. While the drug maker argued that the award was excessive, Bartlett suffered a genuine loss of enjoyment of life after only a few weeks on the drug.

Bartlett was placed in a medically-induced coma for several months, in addition to spending two months in the burn unit of the hospital. The burns on her body have left her disfigured and unable to eat properly, participate in sexual activity, or engage in aerobic activity.

Mutual still has time to petition the U.S. Supreme Court and some legal experts predict that the high court might take up the case.

The appeals court applied the rule from another drug company lawsuit, Wyeth v. Levine, which held that drug manufacturers of brand name drugs can be held liable in state courts for failure to provide adequate warnings. A subsequent case. PLIVA v. Mensing, held that generic drug makers were exempt from the Wyeth ruling, since they couldn't alter the FDA approved labels.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals, in its opinion, wrote that it was leaving the distinction between the two cases for the Supreme Court to decide.

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