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Philadelphia—For the next couple of years, the Complex Litigation Center may as well be called the Diet Drug Litigation Center. More than 10,000 fen-phen cases were filed in state court in Philadelphia over a four-month period earlier this year. Philadelphia appears to have the largest concentration of fen-phen lawsuits of any state court. The city’s Complex Litigation Center has twice as many as New Jersey, where 5,300 cases have been consolidated in Bergen County, and more than the several thousand suits pending in California state court. The Philadelphia court started with 2,385 fen-phen cases in January and had 12,766 by May. “That’s kind of extraordinary for any jurisdiction,” said Mary McGovern, who’s piloted the Complex Litigation Center since it opened in 1992. About 350 fen-phen cases had been settled, tried or voluntarily withdrawn as of Dec. 6, 2004, leaving court administrators thinking hard about how best to manage the pending 12,400-plus. More than 20,000 cases Of the 30 mass-tort programs the Philadelphia center has handled, litigation from plaintiffs injured by asbestos exposure holds the title for the most cases filed-more than 20,000-over the years. This year, the fen-phen program set a new record-the largest number of mass-tort cases filed in a matter of months, McGovern said. The first fen-phen trials in Philadelphia began in July. Since then, 11 juries have rendered verdicts—about half for the defense—in trials involving plaintiffs from all over the country who claim they were harmed by taking the diet drug compound. Other cases have settled during trial for undisclosed amounts. In 1997, Pennsylvania corporation American Home Products (now the Madison, N.J.-based Wyeth) withdrew its diet-drug combination known as fen-phen from the market after medical studies reported that the drugs could cause heart trouble. After a billion-dollar nationwide settlement, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 individual cases remain against Wyeth. These are plaintiffs who met certain requirements for opting out of the national settlement and did, giving up their chance to collect punitive damages against the corporation. Opt-outs had until May 4 to file suit against the company in federal or state court. More than 15,000 opt-out lawsuits are caught up in the federal multidistrict litigation overseen by a district judge in Philadelphia. What’s landed in state courts—mostly Pennsylvania’s, New Jersey’s and California’s—are cases that Wyeth cannot remove to federal court because the corporation, a subsidiary or a co-defendant has a principal business location in those jurisdictions, lawyers said. Why so many in Philadelphia? Lawyers say they flock here in part because of the Complex Litigation Center. Its reputation for promptly and fairly disposing of large numbers of mass tort cases is well known in the legal community. “If you build a highway, they will come,” McGovern said. Another reason, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers, why they chose the jurisdiction was the location of Wyeth’s pharmaceutical division in Collegeville, Pa. Also, decisions regarding the labeling, marketing and distribution of the diet drugs were allegedly made at a former division headquarters in Radnor, Pa. In July, Common Pleas Judge Norman Ackerman, coordinating judge for the center, refused to dismiss on ground of forum non conveniens a group of 55 fen-phen cases filed by out-of-state plaintiffs. Wyeth had argued that the cases should be tried individually in the plaintiffs’ home states. Ackerman said the plaintiffs could stay. Traditionally, plaintiffs’ lawyers have preferred Philadelphia because they perceive the jurors in the large jurisdiction as more sympathetic to plaintiffs. Just ask the American Tort Reform Association. Last week it ranked Philadelphia as one of the nation’s top “judicial hellholes,” which the advocacy group claims to be havens for frivolous lawsuits and runaway jury verdicts. Actually, Wyeth attorneys have pointed to the low verdict amounts that juries have returned thus far—when they award damages at all. They say this proves that many of the heart-valve cases are without merit. “The juries simply are not impressed by the plaintiffs’ cases,” said Mike Scott, Philadelphia counsel for Wyeth at Reed Smith. (Historically, Wyeth has been settling the more serious cases brought by plaintiffs suffering from primary pulmonary hypertension, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure of the main artery of the lungs.) Several of the compensatory damages awards handed down in the 30 or so Philadelphia heart-valve cases were between $40,000 and $50,000 per plaintiff. Four juries handed up greater judgments, including two verdicts just announced. One jury awarded a woman $250,000 in compensatory damages, and another awarded $2.5 million to three plaintiffs. The $2.5 million judgment was the highest since late October, when a jury awarded four plaintiffs $2.135 million. While juries have awarded damages in some fen-phen cases, not many have had the chance to decide whether Wyeth was liable for the alleged injuries. In most cases, judges flipped the traditional order of trial so that juries would decide the damages owed to a plaintiff—the seriousness of the injury—before deciding whether Wyeth is liable.

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