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Now that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of San Diego-based Metabolife International, the largest manufacturer of the dieting product ephedra, the lawsuits have started flowing in. John H. Ruiz, a Miami class action attorney, has filed what he says is the first class action lawsuit against Metabolife in Florida. Ruiz filed the product liability lawsuit Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on behalf of Francella Perez, Elizabeth Cepero and Jeanette Cepero, who are from Miami. Fifty people in South Florida have joined the lawsuit since it was filed, says Ruiz, who estimates that there are more than 10,000 class members nationwide. In the lawsuit, Ruiz claimed product liability, strict liability, and violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. He seeks injunctive and equitable relief, including monetary damages, payment refunds and medical monitoring. “Metabolife engaged in a diverse and wide-sweeping marketing and promotion effort to sell Metabolife 356 by misinforming and misleading consumers about Metabolife 356, and by failing to protect users from the serious dangers which Metabolife knew or should have known resulted from the use of Metabolife 356,” the lawsuit states. On Aug. 16, nationally recognized class action attorney Archie Lamb fired the first round by filing a lawsuit in circuit court in Jefferson County, Ala., seeking class action status for thousands of people allegedly injured by the product. A lawsuit also was filed in California earlier this week. Metabolife did not return a phone call for comment before deadline. Since early 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration has issued numerous warnings that ephedra, also known as ma huang, can cause heart attacks, seizures, strokes, sleeplessness, migraines, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats. Last week, the FDA disclosed that Metabolife promised to turn over 13,000 complaints it had received from consumers. The agency also announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had begun investigating whether Metabolife knew about the dangers of the product and lied to the FDA. It is unknown how many people have used the popular dieting product, which is supposed to suppress appetite and lead to weight loss. In his lawsuit, Ruiz claims that his first client, Elizabeth Cepero, took the prescribed amount of the substance and, over three months, suffered irregular heartbeats, migraine headaches and depression without seeing any weight loss. Cepero contacted him after hearing about the Justice Department’s criminal investigation, says Ruiz, who runs a five-lawyer law firm. He says he now has 10 Metabolife plaintiffs who were hospitalized after using the product. Some required heart bypass surgery or thyroid surgery. “They were asymptomatic before they took it,” says Ruiz, who claims that none of his clients succeeded in losing weight while using the product. Ruiz previously has filed class action suits involving the dieting drug fen-phen and against insurance companies such as Allstate and Geico. He predicts that Metabolife lawsuits ultimately will be consolidated in multidistrict litigation in federal court.

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