Sitting at the poker table, your adrenaline pumps in anticipation of transforming a couple of plastic chips into a retirement fund. Instead, you leave with a buzz and empty pockets. While most people like to let what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas, one Texas man decided to share his experience with the U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas.

After losing more than $12 million in a two-year gambling spree, Max Wells filed suit against several Las Vegas casinos and one additional cash cow–GlaxoSmithKline. Wells claims the drug he was taking to treat his Parkinson’s disease, Requip, led to his compulsive gambling. He alleges the drug company had a duty to warn him about the possibility of this strange side effect.

According to the Feb. 27 filing, “[GlaxoSmithKline's] failure to give proper warnings was the causative nexus of Wells’ developing an irresistible gambling compulsion and thereby losing approximately $12.2 million.”

Although the allegation that any medication could cause someone to gamble away his life’s savings appears frivolous on its face, independent clinical studies support Wells’ claims that there is a relationship between the medication and compulsive gambling. While many lawyers deem these “case reports” unscientific and highly speculative, their existence can pose real problems for defendants in the pharmaceutical industry.

Bad Science

“From a legal standpoint, just about every study or report that claims to show an adverse relationship these days gives rise to lawsuits,” says Joseph Leghorn, a partner in Nixon Peabody’s Boston office.

In August 2003, Archives of Neurology published an article about a possible association between pathological gambling and Parkinson’s medications. The Mayo Clinic also released a 2005 report suggesting a possible link.

“[These case studies] are extremely important particularly if they are done by outsiders, assuming they are well done and well constructed,” says Joseph Cohen, partner at Beirne Maynard & Parsons in Houston. “But I haven’t see anything [in these reports] saying that if you give this particular drug to someone who has Parkinson’s disease it is going make that person go to Las Vegas and max out his credit cards.”

Although many in the medical community question the validity of reports such as the one appearing in Neurology, the mere existence of negative press about a drug can prove disastrous for corporations.

Throughout the 1990s Dow Corning Corp. paid out millions of dollars to women who alleged the company’s silicon breast implants led to autoimmune problems, a claim medical literature supported. It wasn’t until after Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy that the scientific community agreed that there was no proven link between the implants and the plaintiffs’ medical claims.

“These are medical problems that exist in society and have existed way before any of these pharmaceutical products came on the market. So it presents a very difficult task to separate out whether there is a cause and effect,” says Edward Sledge, chair of the Defense Research Institute’s Drug and Medical Device Committee. “The Max Wells case in no way comes close to establishing a cause and effect relationship.”

Target Practice

Despite an increase in suits against the pharmaceutical industry in the past decade, the industry seems to be winning the battle against junk science. But with the constant media frenzy around negative side effects and general social distrust toward large drug companies, there’s little drug companies can do to keep negative press from turning into legal battles.

For instance, on March 6, plaintiffs filed a class action in the Southern District of New York against the makers of the popular sleep aid Ambien, which recently made headlines when studies linked the drug to nocturnal binge eating. The recent filing alleges the drug led one housewife to consume raw eggs and caused a U.S. Navy lieutenant to shoplift.

“Today, we live longer, healthier lives than ever before,” Sledge says. “Pharmaceuticals help us get there, but they aren’t without their risks. There are more pharmaceuticals coming on the market and there is more potential for litigation. That’s just the way of the world.”