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Friday, May 28, 2010

The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial




I've just finished reading an excellent book entitled, The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial. It was written by John Cornwell and gives you a great insight into the mechanics of the American legal [litigation] system and how pharmaceutical company lawyers, in this case, lawyers representing Eli Lilly, try to muddy the waters of expert witnesses from the side of the plaintiffs.

The book revolves around the tragic case of Joe Wesbecker who went in to his place of employment [Standard Gravure, in Louisville, Kentucky] and shot 20 people, killing 8, before turning the gun on himself.

The plaintiffs, the 12 survivors of Webecker's killing spree, filed a suit against Eli Lily after they had learned that Wesbecker had been prescribed Prozac, a drug manufactured and promoted by Lilly.

What follows is a fascinating account of Wesbecker's background and how Lily's lawyers used this background to defend their drug.

Reading the book one can understand Lilly's defence as Wesbecker had previously been on a cocktail of anti-psychotic medication.

The case is well-known with Prozac activists and the outcome has more twists than a John Grisham novel.

I learned of a new drug whilst reading this book, a drug manufactured by Eli Lilly and one that they fought tooth and nail over behind the scenes [sidebar, Judge's chambers] to not be introduced as evidence in this particular case.

It was a drug that would play a major part in this trial and one that was a leverage for the plaintiffs to strike a 'secret deal' with Lilly's law team.

The verdict of this case is widely known. The Juror's cleared Prozac in the role of these murders. What is largely unknown is the secret deal the defence and plaintiffs struck before that jury verdict was announced. A deal that rested on the introduction of a previous drug manufactured by Eli Lilly - that drug being Oraflex.

Lilly lawyers knew that the Oralflex information would be damaging to their defence and at first the Judge [Judge John Potter] agreed with them that the jury shouldn't hear it.

As the case progressed Lilly's lawyers offered witnesses to make claims of how good their system was for collecting and analysing side effects.

The plaintiffs lawyers pounced and argued that Lilly's lawyers had basically opened the door of rebuttal.

In other words, the plaintiffs could now argue that Lilly's system wasn't as good as they had made out in court.

It was then decided by Judge Potter that the Oraflex information could be introduced and that the jury could hear it.

What followed defies belief and if you had a lack of faith in the judicial system then this book won't comfort you.

If the lawyers for the plaintiffs would have introduced this information then many of the jurors [later interviewed when this came to light] would have put the murders down to Prozac.

Sadly, a deal [unbeknown to Judge Potter] was struck not to introduce this evidence. The plaintiffs and defence had, it appears, agreed on a sum of money not to introduce this damning evidence.

Judge Potter's reaction on learning of this 'secret deal'? Well, you will have to read the book.

It's a great insight into the world and underhand tactics of lawyers who represent pharmaceutical companies and, it has to be said, a world where lawyers for plaintiffs take the lure of the dollar rather than the future safety of patients who take Prozac.

Litigation is all about money but the plaintiffs lawyers in this case had an opportunity to nip future sales of Prozac in the bud. They took the money instead.

Can anyone blame them?

Well, if they would have introduced the Oraflex evidence then they could have left the door open for a mistrial - Lilly's lawyers would no doubt have used this point as part of an appeal process if they would have lost.

The 'payout' is unknown but was believed to be a very handsome amount.

As The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial went to press [May 1996] Judge John Potter was told that he could conduct a hearing to determine whether Eli Lilly and the plaintiffs has misled the court about the 'pre-verdict' agreement. Potter had previously been told that he could not conduct such a hearing but this was overturned.

Extract: [1]

In the published statement of the Supreme Court, the judges declared that "there was a serious lack of candor with the trial court." They went on to state that "there may have been a deception, bad faith conduct, abuse of judicial process or perhaps even fraud," which was "what the investigation and hearing is to determine."

Commenting on the integrity and authority of American courts of law, the judges wrote that "our system depends on the adversarial presentation of evidence...even the slightest accommodation of deceit or a lack of candor in any material quickly erodes the validity of the precess."

Reacting to the Supreme Court decision, Ed West for Eli Lilly said that even if Potter's court eventually altered the jury verdict to a settlement, "it shouldn't in any way reflect negatively on the product...it's a question of legal procedural wrangling."



You can purchase a copy of The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial, HERE


[1] The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial. Copyright John Cornwell 1996

**Lilly suspended sales of Oraflex in 1982 after reports from the British government and the FDA of adverse effects and deaths linked to the drug.

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