The federal judge presiding over the first Chantix suicide lawsuit set to go before a jury next month, is allowing the plaintiff to pursue punitive damages against Pfizer over the psychiatric risks associated with their stop-smoking drug.
In an order (PDF) issued September 18, U.S. District Judge Inge Prytz Johnson granted a motion filed by Judy Ann Whitely to amend her complaint filed over the suicide death of her husband, which was allegedly caused by side effects of Chantix.
Whitely has been allowed to add a claim for punitive damages, alleging that Pfizer knew or intentionally diregarded facts that Chantix causes an increased risk of suicide, depression and other psychological side effects. However, Judge Johnson indicates that the court has no opinion at this time about whether Whitely can successfully prove such a claim by the “clear and convincing evidence” that are required for punitive damages to be awarded.
The case is currently scheduled for the first Chantix “bellwether” trial date in the federal multidistrict litigation (MDL), which has been established to centralize all lawsuits filed in U.S. District Courts throughout the country before Judge Johnson in the Northern District of Alabama.
Chantix Trial Set to Begin October 22
Chantix (varenicline) was approved in the United States in 2006, as a prescription medication to help people quit smoking. The drug works by reducing the positive feelings that come from cigarettes, blocking the receptors in the brain commonly stimulated by nicotine.
Within months after the medication was introduced, reports began to surface about individuals committing suicide or engaging in other unusual behavior on Chantix, which was allegedly caused by the neuropsychological effects of the medication on the brain.
In July 2009, the FDA added a “black box” label warning to the smoking cessation drug about the risks of psychological side effects, which Judge Johnson already determined last month was adequate as a matter of law to alert people about the potential psychological side effects of Chantix.
About 2,000 Chantix lawsuits are currently pending against Pfizer involving the stop-smoking drug, and the Whitely case is among a small group that were selected for early trial dates, to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to similar evidence that may be introduced throughout the litigation.
Trial in the Whitely case is scheduled to begin on October 22, 2012, and it will be followed by a second trial scheduled to start on January 22, 2013.
The potential addition of punitive damages could result in a blockbuster jury award if the plaintiff wins the case. Punitive damages are meant to punish for bad conduct and can be up to triple the amount paid in compensatory damages.