Pfizer Inc. has agreed to settle a Neurontin wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a minister who allegedly committed suicide due to side effects of the epilepsy medication, which is often used off-label to control pain and mood swings.
The lawsuit was brought by the family of Richard Smith, a retired Church of Christ minister from Nashville, Tennessee, who committed suicide in May 2004 after being prescribed the drug to treat chronic pain following neck and back surgeries. While Pfizer alleged Smith killed himself due to the intense pain and depression, the family says that the side effect of Neurontin on his mind made him contemplate and carry out suicide.
Neurontin (gabapentin) is an epilepsy medication approved by the FDA in 1983, which generated $387 million in sales for Pfizer in 2008.
There are currently about 1,200 Neurontin lawsuits pending against Pfizer, most of which have been brought by plaintiffs who say that Neurontin increased the risk of suicide. In 2008, the FDA required Neurontin and similar epilepsy drugs to begin carrying label warnings alerting users to the risk of suicidal thoughts. All federal lawsuits over Neurontin have been consolidated before U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris.
While details of the Neurontin settlement between Pfizer and Smith’s family have not been released, it is at least the second Neurontin suicide lawsuit to settle since March, when a Boston jury handed down a $140 million verdict against the company for illegally marketing Neurontin for off-label purposes.
While doctors are free to prescribe drugs for uses not approved by the FDA, manufacturers are prohibited from marketing the drugs for such uses that they have not established are safe and effective.
In 2004, Parke-Davis, a division of Warner-Lambert that was acquired by Pfizer, paid $430 million to the U.S. Justice Department over claims that they were illegally promoting Neurontin for off-label uses, including control of mood swings. Last fall, Pfizer paid the Justice Department $2.3 billion to settle a number of off-label marketing claims, which included its marketing of Neurontin.