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American Home Products settles another fen-phen lawsuit

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — The family of a 30-year-old Massachusetts woman whose death was blamed on the fen-phen diet drug combination settled a lawsuit against drug maker American Home Products, the company announced Thursday.

Terms of the deal with relatives of Mary J. Linnen were kept secret, but the company said much of it will be used to fund a research foundation established by the family to aid in treating the rare lung disease that killed her, primary pulmonary hypertension.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday cited unidentified sources saying the company settled the case for about $10 million. American Home refused to confirm or deny the report.

Linnen, of Quincy, Mass., had taken the diet drug combination for 24 days in 1996 in an attempt to lose weight for her wedding. She was diagnosed with the debilitating disease that November and died the following February, after suffering partial blindness, the state court suit said.

Linnen's parents, Thomas F. and Mary J. Linnen, of Palm Coast, Fla., said in the suit that an autopsy determined their daughter died as a result of "pulmonary hypertension associated with" the fen-phen therapy

After her diagnosis, "she lived each day feeling and believing that she had been given a death sentence," the suit said.

A statement by the company Thursday did not address the issue of whether or not American Home Products admitted any wrongdoing, and Wyeth spokesman Doug Petkus refused to comment on the issue.

American Home Products' Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories division marketed the "fen" in the drug combination, fenfluramine, which was paired with phentermine to make "fen-phen." Wyeth-Ayerst also made a related diet drug, dexfenfluramine, which went under the brand name Redux.

Almost six million Americans took the drugs until they were banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 after reports that some users developed serious, and sometimes fatal, heart problems. Phentermine is still on the market.

In October 1999, American Home Products agreed to pay $3.75 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits filed nationwide by people claiming health problems due to fen-phen. But the settlement only applied to patients with possible heart valve problems. It did not cover Linnen's disease.

The company has set aside approximately another $1 billion to deal with other claims that might arise. Even though the exact terms of the Linnen settlement weren't known, Alex Zisson, an industry analyst with Hambrecht & Quist, said Wall Street had been given no reason to believe it jeopardized that reserve.

"They haven't given out a dollar figure, but at this point they've said the charge will be adequate," Zisson said. "Wall Street at this point just wants all the fen-phen litigation to go away. Even if American Home has to pay a little more than the cases deserve, Wall Street would say that's a good deal."

American Home, which is fighting with competitor Pfizer, over American's planned merger with another drug maker, Warner-Lambert, saw its shares fall $1.121/2 Thursday to $43.371/2 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Linnens' suit was the first wrongful death case filed against American Home Products in connection with the fen-phen drugs, said their lawyer, Alex MacDonald.

It was not the first death case settled.

In Houston last year, relatives of 35-year-old Mary Marisa Smith, who claimed fen-phen killed her, agreed to settle for an undisclosed amount of money three weeks into trial.

Settlements of suits in other states and major jury verdicts against American Home have recently raised questions about whether enough fen-phen users will accept the national settlement. American Home can reject the preliminary deal if too many patients opt out of it and pursue their own lawsuits.

Even at the time fen-phen was being marketed, primary pulmonary hypertension was a recognized, although rare, side effect, Zisson said. The Linnens claimed their daughter wasn't notified of the risk.

The Linnens and American Home Products settled the suit after it went to trial. During the trial the company disputed that its drug could be conclusively linked to her condition.