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No one knows what killed Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, but his death has already shifted the landscape in ephedra litigation. Bechler reportedly had been taking the dietary supplement ephedra to lose weight when he died of heatstroke last month after collapsing during spring-training workouts. The publicity surrounding the 23-year-old’s death — and his widow’s plans to sue the manufacturer — have subjected ephedra to new scrutiny. Within two weeks of Bechler’s death, Rand Corp. released a study reporting evidence of a link between the supplement and heart attacks, strokes and seizures; minor league baseball banned players from using it; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it may require stronger warnings and could ban the product. Bechler’s death won’t change how cases are litigated, plaintiffs’ lawyers said, but it may influence the jury pool. “It’s like Magic Johnson getting AIDS — it brings it to people’s attention,” said Paul Rheingold, a partner at New York’s Rheingold, Valet, Rheingold, Shkolnik & McCartney. “It’s in the backgrounds of the minds of jurors.” ‘IT’S IN THE AIR’ Rheingold, who filed his first ephedra lawsuit in 1999 but has yet to take one to trial, is involved in 22 lawsuits in New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Utah and California, he said. He’s never been so optimistic about the prospects, he added. “It’s in the air and in the street now.” He cited the Rand study, the blizzard of news articles and the government investigations as evidence of a sea change. There have also been three jury verdicts for plaintiffs. Less than a week after Bechler’s death, a Texas jury awarded $1 million to the parents of a 24-year-old who died after ingesting ephedra supplements prior to an army physical fitness test. The jury initially awarded more than $2 million, but it found the victim and the supplement manufacturer, New York-based Twinlab Corp., each 50 percent responsible. Scurlock v. Twin Laboratories Inc., No. 23950 (Bastrop Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). Last November, a Birmingham, Ala., jury awarded $4.1 million to four plaintiffs who sued Metabolife International, the San Diego dietary-supplement company: three female plaintiffs, ranging in age from 46 to 67, suffered strokes and a 60-year-old male plaintiff had a heart attack. McClain v. Metabolife, No. CV-01-AR-1801-S (N.D. Ala.). The first plaintiff’s win was a suit brought by a 34-year-old Alaska woman who had a stroke while exercising after drinking a beverage with supplement drops. The supplement she used, like the ones in the other lawsuits, contained ephedrine alkaloids — distilled forms of the herb ephedra. In each case, the supplements combined the herb extract with caffeine, a combination that renders them particularly dangerous for some consumers, plaintiffs’ lawyers assert. But the Alaska defendant, Utah-based E’Ola Products, added a twist. According to plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Vollertsen of Anchorage, Alaska’s Atkinson, Conway & Gagnon, E’Ola spiked the drops with ephedrine hydrochloride, a synthetic drug. It did so surreptitiously — Vollertsen learned this only through a lab analysis — which made the product illegal, he said. In February 2001, the jury awarded his client $1.3 million in compensatories and $12 million in punitives. Following an appeal, the parties settled for a confidential sum. Talbert v. E’Ola, No. 3AN-97-4046 (Anchorage Super. Ct.). Last December, Metabolife won a jury verdict in Rancho Cucamonga County, Calif. Though jurors found the supplement defective, they also found it had not caused the plaintiff’s stroke. Hendricksen v. Metabolife, No RCV057282. Lanny Davis, a partner at Washington’s Patton Boggs who represents Metabolife, decried the rush to link ephedra with Bechler’s death. Without evidence, the inflammatory rhetoric is “commercial McCarthyism,” he said. Metabolife, the largest manufacturer of ephedra supplements, maintains the product is safe when consumers follow directions and use it for weight control. The company recognizes the potential for abuse, Davis added, and supports government regulation to curtail other companies that “irresponsibly” market to children and athletes. On one point lawyers on both sides agree. The fulcrum on which these cases turn is causation. Davis contends the 16,000 “adverse event reports” the company has filed with the Food and Drug Administration haven’t proved a causal link, nor have more than 50 clinical studies. Plaintiffs’ lawyers insist the company studies are flawed. And Rand’s summary of its own study concludes that ephedra is “more likely than not” the cause of “catastrophic events such as sudden death, heart attack or stroke,” but “the available evidence falls short of the conventional level of scientific proof.”

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