Appellate court upholds NH drug liability verdict

Posted May 09, 2012, at 10:38 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — A federal appeals court has upheld the largest ever verdict in a New Hampshire products liability case.

A federal jury in September 2010 awarded Karen Bartlett of Plaistow $21.6 million after determining a prescription drug she took to relieve shoulder pain caused blindness and severe burning of her skin and mucus membranes.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict against Philadelphia-based Mutual Pharmaceutical, manufacturer of the generic, anti-inflammatory drug sulindac.

The pharmaceutical company challenged the verdict as excessive, targeting in particular the $16.5 million the jury awarded Bartlett for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. But the appeals court upheld the award, stating in its ruling that “Bartlett’s injuries were truly horrific.”

Bartlett spent almost two months in the burn unit of Massachusetts General Hospital and additional months in a medically-induced coma as doctors treated burns over nearly 65 percent of her body. She has had more than a dozen operations on her eyes and is legally blind.

Her burn surgeon, during testimony at her trial, described her experience as “hell on earth.”

First Circuit Judge Michael Boudin wrote in the court’s unanimous ruling that the permanent damage to Bartlett from her reaction to the drug is “severe.”

“Bartlett cannot eat normally due to esophageal burns, cannot have sexual relations due to vaginal injuries and cannot engage in aerobic activities due to lung injuries,” Boudin wrote. “She cannot read or drive or work. She is seriously disfigured in face and body. ”

Sulinac is a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug. Bartlett’s doctor prescribed it in December 2004 for shoulder pain. The court noted that the consequences “were disastrous.”

Evidence presented during the 14-day trial included graphic photographs of ulcerated burns on her body and her disfigured eyes.

Bartlett said at the time of her trial she brought the lawsuit to help educate the public.

“I never knew something like this could happen just from taking medication,” she said. Her symptoms began within weeks of going on the medication.

Lawyers for Mutual Pharmaceutical did not immediately return calls seeking comment. It is not known whether they plan further appeals.

New Hampshire U.S. District Judge Joseph Laplante had instructed the jury that to hold Mutual liable, they had to find that the drug was unreasonably dangerous.

The appeals court — in its May 2 ruling — also rejected Mutual’s challenge to the qualifications of Bartlett’s expert witnesses.

Mutual cross-examined Bartlett’s witnesses but did not put on witnesses of its own.

One of Bartlett’s lawyers, Christine Craig of Shaheen & Gordon, said no one is more deserving of compensation that her client.

“She has faced this with courage and grace and we are hopeful she will finally have justice in the near future,” Craig said.

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