Novartis Hid Drug Dangers


Novartis Officials Hid Bone Drugs' Risks, Lawyer Tells Jurors

Novartis AG officials downplayed risks that the drugmaker’s bone-strengthening medicines Aredia and Zometa could destroy patients’ jaws, a lawyer for a woman suing the company told a North Carolina jury.

Officials of the Basel, Switzerland-based drug company got reports from doctors as early as 2002 that Rita Fussman and other cancer patients taking Aredia and Zometa to prevent bone loss during treatment suffered irreplaceable jawbone damage, Bob Germany, a lawyer for Fussman’s family, said in opening statements in a trial over the medicines. Fussman died in 2009 of complications from breast cancer.

Fussman’s family contends Novartis didn’t adequately warn that Aredia and Zometa could cause disfiguring jaw damage that forced cancer patients such as Fussman to subsist on baby food, Germany told jurors in federal court in Winston-Salem.

Patients and their doctors “were not told the whole story about these drugs,” Germany said. “In fact, we were not told half the story.”

The Fussman family’s lawsuit is the third product-liability case to go to trial over the bone-strengthening treatments, which had 2009 sales of $1.5 billion, according to Novartis’s annual report. Both drugs are still on the market.

Other Trials

Last month, a New Jersey jury rejected a woman’s claims that Aredia and Zometa caused her jaw deterioration. In October 2009, a Montana jury ordered Novartis to pay $3.2 million in damages to a cancer patient who made the same claims over the medicines.

Novartis’s lawyer countered in his opening statement that Aredia and Zometa helped make it easier for patients like the 76-year-old Fussman to deal with cancer and that her history of repeated dental surgeries may have caused her jaw problems.

“She never had excruciating bone pain while she was on Zometa,” Bruce Berger, one of the company’s lawyers, told jurors. The drugs allowed her “to live without the pain of cancer,” he added.

Novartis is facing almost 700 suits over the bone- strengthening medicines, according to court filings.

Some of the cases have been consolidated before a federal judge in Tennessee while others, like Fussman’s, have been sent back to their home courts for trial. Fussman lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Still other cases have been heard in state courts around the country.

The case is Estate of Rita Fussman v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 06-CV-000149, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Winston-Salem).


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