The weight-loss industry is booming in the United States, and probably will continue to grow as the nation experiences what the Surgeon General has deemed an “obesity epidemic.” As a result, drug makers are constantly seeking to develop and market that lucrative “magic pill” that will facilitate weight loss. In fact, drug companies have been marketing diet pills in various forms for more than twenty-five years, and desperate patients have been more than willing to try them, often with tragic consequences. Sadly, in a quest to become healthier, unwitting users have subjected themselves to dangerous diet drugs, experiencing not an improvement in health, but rather serious health problems and even death.
In 1992, for instance, pharmaceutical companies marketed two diet pills called Fenfluramine (“Fen”) and Phentermine (“Phen”), to be used in combination and therefore dubbed “Fen-Phen.” Unfortunately, tens of thousands of Americans have suffered very serious injuries from taking these diet drugs and similar ones. These injuries include heart valve damage and potentially fatal primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH). It is unclear how many deaths have been directly attributed to extended use of fenfluramine but in 2004 a Texas jury awarded $1 billion to the estate of a deceased woman after finding that Fen-Phen caused her death. Many Fen-Phen users face heart valve replacement surgery, and countless others now live in fear because they do not know what will happen if their disease progresses. Thousands of others remain unaware of their injuries because they have not yet had the medical testing required for proper diagnosis-often an echocardiogram, which is, in essence, a noninvasive and painless ultrasound examination of the heart.
There is strong evidence that some of the companies involved in marketing and selling Fen-Phen knew that these drugs were causing serious, even fatal, injuries, and that they deliberately concealed that information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect their profits. Fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine were removed from the market in September 1997, at the request of the FDA, but by then significant damage was done, and thousands of Americans suffered needless, but very serious, injuries.
The Fen-Phen combination is not the only diet drug or combination thereof to give rise to litigation. Meridia has also been the subject of recent lawsuits, with claims ranging from less serious side effects to death, and even over-the-counter diet aids and herbal supplements have come under legal scrutiny after users suffered ill consequences, again including death. One particularly problematic ingredient is ephedrine, which has been linked with death in multiple cases.
There have been many individual lawsuits seeking diet drug-related damages, and there have been class action lawsuits as well, in which large groups of injured individuals have joined together to sue the same manufacturers. A class action lawsuit is a case in which there are one or more persons named as plaintiffs in the complaint, the document that officially starts the lawsuit, but the case is actually pursued on behalf of many other persons with similar claims. The persons named on the complaint are the “class representatives,” and their claims must arise from circumstances similar to those of the other class members.
Generally, individual plaintiffs need not take any formal action to join in class action litigation, but rather they automatically become members unless they formally opt out. Rarely, a class action will be limited to those plaintiffs who expressly choose to opt in. Potential class members are often notified by letter informing them in writing of any action they need to take. Not all individuals are best served, however, by national settlements of class actions, since they may not fairly compensate the most seriously injured diet drug users. It is important to note that class action settlements are binding on all persons who do not “opt out.”
All diet drug users should consult with their physicians about the risks of taking any prescribed or over-the-counter weight-loss medications and submit to any recommended follow-up testing. If ill effects are experienced or discovered through examination and testing, the victim must act immediately to protect his or her legal rights as well. If you have suffered damages as a result of a diet drug, it would be prudent to seek legal counsel right away. When seeking an attorney to represent you, be sure to investigate his or her background in products liability law, especially with regard to drugs and pharmaceuticals. Inquire about his or her track record so that you can make an informed decision about whether this is the right person to steadfastly stand up against a big pharmaceutical company that has many more resources than you do to fight the charges against it. Only with an experienced advocate on your side can you be sure to achieve an outcome that best compensates you for your losses.