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Drug Maker Ordered To Pay $19.2 Million In Birth Defects Lawsuit

June 15, 1994

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A woman who took an anti-nausea drug during her pregnancy and later gave birth to a son with clubbed feet won a $19.2 million judgment Wednesday from the medicine’s manufacturer.

Joan Blum’s son, Jeffrey, was born in 1980 after she used the drug Bendectin, made by Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., to counteract morning sickness. Now 14, he can walk only with the help of leg braces.

The Blums, of suburban Huntingdon Valley, won their case for a second time Wednesday after a seven-week trial in state court.

The first trial, in 1987, ended with a $2 million judgment. A new trial was ordered last year because one juror fell ill in the original case, leaving only 11 to reach the verdict.

″The defense relied on what I refer to as junk science created to defend the litigation,″ said Thomas R. Kline, the attorney who represented the Blums. ″The jury saw through the sham.″

The Blums contended Merrell Dow was negligent, improperly warned physicians about Bendectin’s dangers, and marketed the drug despite having evidence it was unsafe. Those factors directly contributed to Jeffrey Blum’s birth defects, the family said.

Jurors concurred on all counts, awarding $4.2 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages designed to ″punish and deter,″ Kline said.

″We’re gratified that the jury found in Jeffrey’s favor,″ Joan Blum said in a statement.

The decision is another blow to Merrell Dow’s successor company, Marion Merrell Dow Inc., which was created through a merger in 1989. The company, one of the U.S.’s biggest pharmaceutical makers, has been suffering in recent yeras from increased competition from generic drug makers. Last year, it reported a 47 percent decline in profits to $362 million, although with a recent restructuring, its profits have turned up this year.

The company, based in Kansas City, Mo., insists Bendectin does not cause birth defects. It plans to appeal, spokesman Tom Heapes said.

Bendectin, first sold in 1956, remains the only drug ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration to relieve morning sickness during pregnancy.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of American women used Bendectin at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. But birth-defects litigation eventually reached 1,800 cases, and in 1983 the company withdrew the drug from the market, saying the cost of court defenses outweighed its profits.

No similar drug has been introduced since. The company and some physicians have said the flood of lawsuits chilled research on drugs used during pregnancy.

The FDA never concluded Bendectin caused birth defects, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Merrell Dow, which has steadfastly refused to settle any Bendectin litigation, has won 37 of 39 cases ultimately brought to trial, Heapes said.

″We don’t want to say we are without compassion for this child or any child born with birth defects,″ Heapes said. ″I understand how a jury could be sympathetic. I’m sympathetic; I have children myself. We just don’t think it’s justifiable to blame our product.″