By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - Pfizer Inc has suffered a setback in its effort
to transfer a consumer class action that claims the
antidepressant Zoloft is no better than a placebo into the
multidistrict litigation over birth defects allegedly caused by
The clerk of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict
Litigation, Jeffery Luthi, determined on Tuesday that the
consumer class action filed in California federal court was "not
appropriate" for inclusion in the consolidated birth defect
litigation under way in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,
according to an entry on the panel's docket.
The novel class action filed in California in January claims
that Pfizer knew that the blockbuster antidepressant was no more
effective than a sugar pill but nevertheless promoted the drug
to doctors and patients. The named plaintiff, Laura Plumlee,
says the drug failed to help her depression over three years of
treatment. The suit is seeking refunds of the money California
consumers spent on the popular drug.
Plumlee's lawsuit draws from the controversial research of
Harvard Medical School psychologist Irving Kirsch, the director
of the Program in Placebo Studies, who contends that the
benefits from antidepressants stem largely from the placebo
effect, the perception of improvement driven by a patient's
Pfizer, one of the world's largest drugmakers, says that
such research has been widely criticized by experts in the
mental health field. The Food and Drug Administration approved
the drug for the treatment of depression, and the fact that
doctors and their patients have chosen the drug for over 20
years confirms its safety and efficacy, the company argues.
On Feb. 22 Pfizer filed a notice with the Judicial Panel on
Multidistrict Litigation, which manages large consolidated
litigation, saying it planned to file a "tag-along" action to
transfer the California case into the consolidated birth defect
litigation in Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
BIRTHS DEFECT CASE
In around 250 cases consolidated in Pennsylvania, mothers
who took Zoloft during pregnancy claim that the drug caused
their babies to be born with congenital birth defects such as
holes in the heart, neural tube defects and other deformities.
By seeking to transfer the class action equating Zoloft with
a placebo to the multidistrict litigation, Pfizer could be
attempting to undercut allegations that Zoloft causes birth
defects. Claims that Zoloft is a sugar pill could be seen to
conflict with claims that the drug caused injuries.
But even before Pfizer argued its case to the multidistrict
litigation panel, the clerk for the panel decided that the
California class action was not suited for transfer.
Chris Coffin, a lawyer at Pendley, Baudin & Coffin, who is
on the plaintiffs' steering committee in the birth defects
litigation, agrees with the clerk's decision and says that the
cases do not belong together.
"There are no allegations of personal injury at all in the
Plumlee case. There are certainly no allegations involving birth
defects," said Coffin, who is also one of the plaintiff's
lawyers in the suit that equates Zoloft with a sugar pill. The
fact that the clerk on his own concluded that the Plumlee case
was not suited for transfer was telling, he said.
Pfizer responded in a statement that the company had
requested the transfer to avoid the possibility of inconsistent
rulings from different courts and to promote efficiency. The
company may still press on with its efforts to transfer the
"While the Clerk of the Panel made a determination that the
case is not appropriate for inclusion in the (multidistrict
litigation), the rules provide that a motion for transfer can be
made to the Panel and Pfizer is evaluating its options," the
The cases are Plumlee v. Pfizer, U.S. District Court for the
Northern District of California, No. 13-414; and In Re: Zoloft
(Sertraline Hydrochloride) Products Liability Litigation, U.S.
District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No.
For Plumlee: Michael Baum of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei &
Goldman; Christopher Coffin of Pendley, Baudin & Coffin.
For Pfizer: Allen Ruby and Raoul Kennedy of Skadden, Arps,
Slate, Meagher & Flom.
For Plumlee: Christopher Coffin.
For Pfizer: Mark Cheffo of Skadden Arps.
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