Lawsuits Over Zoloft Birth Defects Filed By At Least 95 in Federal Courts

According to a recent court filing by Pfizer, the drug maker currently faces at least 95 Zoloft lawsuits filed in 16 different federal district courts by families of children born with severe birth defects or malformations after being exposed to their popular antidepressant during pregnancy.

A panel of federal judges is scheduled to hear oral arguments tomorrow in San Diego over whether to consolidate all federal lawsuits over Zoloft birth defects in one court for pretrial proceedings, as part of an MDL, or multidistrict litigation.

In advance of that hearing, Pfizer filed a supplemental brief on March 22, indicating that the number of product liability lawsuits filed over the antidepressant has increased by more than 60% since the beginning of this year, when the drug maker filed a motion to consolidated the Zoloft litigation.

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On January 18, Pfizer filed a motion to transfer 59 cases pending in the federal court system to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that the cases should be consolidated for pretrial litigation to reduce duplicative discovery, avoid conflicting rulings and serve the convenience of the witnesses, the parties and the courts.

Initial responses filed by several plaintiffs argued that Pfizer had improperly removed dozens of cases from state court systems to create the artificial impression that there were more cases in the federal court system, and get the cases transferred to a venue that it considered more favorable. Plaintiffs estimated that 49 of the 59 cases originally identified by Pfizer should be remanded back to the state court where they were originally filed.

In the supplemental filing, Pfizer argues that while they believe the number of actions included in the original filing was more than sufficient to warrant creation of a Zoloft MDL, the rate of additional filings since January 18 provides additional support for establishing the MDL.

“The growing number of cases filed directly in federal court by plaintiffs also further dispels the notion, advanced by certain plaintiffs’ counsel, that Pfizer is seeking an MDL based on an artificially inflated federal docket,” wrote the drug maker in the March 22 filing.

Various plaintiffs have filed responses supporting consolidation of the lawsuits over Zoloft, but propose other venues where the litigation should be centralized, with most plaintiffs supporting either the Southern District of Illinois or Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

All of the complaints involve similar allegations that Pfizer failed to adequately warn consumers and the medical community that use of Zoloft during pregnancy may increase the risk of birth defects for children.

Exposure to the SSRI antidepressant has been linked to serious and potentially life-threatening health problems for babies, including persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN), spina bifida, heart defects, lung defects, abdominal defects, cranial defects and other malformations.

Zoloft (sertraline) was introduced by Pfizer in 1991 for the treatment of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. By 2007 there were nearly 30 million prescriptions, making it the most prescribed antidepressant in the United States.

Following a hearing before the U.S. Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation on Thursday, a decision on whether to consolidate the litigation is expected within a few weeks. If a Zoloft MDL is formed, the panel will also determine the most appropriate transfer venue.


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