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A Philadelphia jury awarded $5 million in potential damages Wednesday to a Utah woman who claimed the diet-drug compound fen-phen damaged her aortic heart valve. The woman’s lawyers said it is the largest verdict for a fen-phen plaintiff alleging heart-valve damage since the national multibillion-dollar class action settlement of fen-phen litigation in 1999. The award was reached during the damages portion of a two-step process; in the second or liability phase, the jury will decide if defendant Wyeth Corp. must pay the damages. Isabel Vega’s suit is one of thousands of individual cases pending in state court in Philadelphia against Wyeth, which used to market the diet-drug compound. The plaintiffs meet certain requirements for opting out of the national settlement, but cannot collect punitive damages against the corporation. The same Philadelphia jury on Wednesday awarded $500,000 to another Utah woman, Camille Olsen, and gave nothing to two other plaintiffs who took the diet drug for less than two months. In a statement, the general counsel for Wyeth, Lawrence V. Stein, said, “The amounts awarded in these cases are grossly excessive and unsupported by the evidence.” Wyeth’s trial counsel, Robert A. Limbacher of the Dechert firm, did not return a call for comment yesterday. The unanimous verdicts in the four cases came after the eight-member jury deliberated for six hours. Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer presided over the coordinated trials of Vega v. Wyeth, Olsen v. Wyeth, Schultz v. Wyeth and Lyman v. Wyeth, which have been bifurcated. The first phase of the trial began March 21, and jurors heard the parties’ arguments on damages over six days, lawyers said. The second phase of the trial, scheduled to begin Monday, will determine whether Wyeth is liable for the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries. The plaintiffs’ attorneys were Rand P. Nolen and Scott A. Love of Fleming & Associates in Houston and Cynthia A. Clark of Bochetto & Lentz in Philadelphia. Nolen suggested the plaintiffs’ cases are different from some others that have gone to trial because the individuals have continued to receive medical treatment for their heart-valve injuries by having annual echocardiograms, which produce an image of the heart. “Juries tend to hold it against plaintiffs if they’re not going in every three months or six months for medical care,” Nolen said. But there’s little to treat in heart-valve cases; instead, doctors monitor the condition to see if it progresses to the point where valve-replacement surgery is needed. “They don’t treat it,” Nolen said. “They do nothing but get repeat echocardiograms. I don’t know if in the other cases the plaintiffs are getting even that much treatment.” Vega, of Helper, Utah, took the diet drug Pondimin for 13 months, starting in 1996, and echocardiograms have shown that the 54-year-old’s “mild” heart-valve condition had progressed to a “moderate” one over time, the lawyers said. An expert for the plaintiffs, Malcolm Taylor, testified that Vega’s condition would ultimately necessitate surgery to replace her valve, although she hasn’t yet progressed that far, Nolen said. The jury awarded $500,000 to Olsen, of Brigham City, Utah, who took Pondimin for a year, starting in 1996. Olsen also has moderate valve damage. Taylor said the 50-year-old would probably require surgery, although he was less confident about that prediction, Nolen said. Stephen Schultz of La Sal, Utah, and Marilyn Lyman of Blanding, Utah, were not awarded damages. Schultz took Pondimin for two months and Lyman took Pondimin for one month. The lawyers said the jurors probably decided not to award Schultz and Lyman compensation because they believed the short period of usage was insufficient to establish causation. Nolen estimated the liability phase next week would take four days. The plaintiffs plan to prove the defendant was negligent in manufacturing and marketing the weight-loss drugs without providing adequate warnings that they could damage the valves of the heart by causing them to leak. In 1997, Pennsylvania corporation American Home Products (now the Madison, N.J.-based Wyeth) withdrew the diet drug from the market after medical studies reported the drugs could cause heart trouble. The damages phase of another fen-phen trial is under way before Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein. Lawyers for the parties closed their cases and the jury was charged Thursday.

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