When an East Texas jury smacked a drug manufacturer with $23.4 million in damages Aug. 6 in the first fen-phen case to reach a verdict, the message the Canton trial sent to lawyers was clear: The price of settling America’s newest mass tort case just went up.

From Hawaii to New Jersey, thousands of fen-phen suits are pending against American Home Products Corp. So far, talks of a national settlement involving the diet drug � taken off the market in 1997 because of its link to heart problems � have failed. However, that may soon change.