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Makers of fen-phen face more suits

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Nine more Utah lawsuits regarding the diet drugs commonly called "fen-phen" have been filed in federal court and one Salt Lake attorney expects that more will follow.

Attorney James Esparza filed nine suits on Friday in partnership with a South Carolina law firm. These suits represent nine individual Utahns, unlike other lawsuits filed earlier that are class-action suits."We feel this (individual civil suits) is in our clients' best interest," Esparza said. "These claimants have varying degrees of medical difficulties. Some have already had open heart surgery. Some have pacemakers because of irregular heartbeats."

They and he conclude that these various ailments are linked to taking the diet drugs.

The individuals are asking for unspecified damages covering a variety of things such as medical bills, future medical monitoring and lost wages. Esparza anticipates the damages will be determined by juries.

Because his clients' medical conditions vary, the damages if they win in court undoubtedly could vary as well.

"We have a client who has about $160,000 in medical bills to date and no insurance. Her claim is not the same as someone who has valvular heart damage, although I'm not trying to minimize valvular heart disease. But the damage is different," Esparza said.

He currently is evaluating other possible suits and may file between nine and 12 more. "All of those people have quite significant damages in terms of the person's medical condition. What we're talking about is physical harm to them - replacement of heart valves with artificial valves, pacemakers, various forms of arthritis because of a substantial change in the auto-immune system.

"These tend to be very sick individuals now," Esparza said.

One of the latest lawsuits contends the manufacturers and distributors of the drugs failed to properly test the medications, failed to warn consumers of potential dangers, particularly with regard to combining the drugs, and did not adequately inform health-care providers about risks.

The suit also said the companies "actually knew of the defective nature of their products as herein set forth and continued to design, manufacture, market and sell their products so as to maximize sales and profits at the expense of public health and safety."

Esparza's clients are suing Gate Pharmaceuticals, a division of Teva Pharmaceuticals; SmithKline Beecham Corp.; Zenith Goldline Pharmaceuticals; Abana Pharmaceuticals; Shire Richwood; Ion Laboratories; Medeva Pharmaceuticals; A.H. Robins Co.; Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories Co.; American Home Products Corp.; Interneuron Pharmaceuticals; and Camall Co.

The diet drugs fenfluramine and phentermine (which taken together are referred to as "fen-phen") and another drug, dexfenfluramine, which is taken alone, have been linked to heart disease and pulmonary hypertension, which is potentially fatal.

The Food and Drug Administration took fenfluramine (whose brand name is Pondimin) and dexfenfluramine (brand name Redux) off the market Sept. 15. The FDA said phentermine appears to be safe when taken by itself, but dieters have found that it is less effective in weight-loss regimens when taken alone.

The FDA warned dieters to discontinue taking fen-phen after studies showed that as many as one-third of the drug-users could develop life-threatening heart-valve damage.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic announced in July that they had found a rare heart-valve defect in 24 women who had taken the drugs.