Were Teva and Baxter Ordered to Pay Damages for Doctors' Malpractice?

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when Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA) and Baxter International (BAX) were ordered Friday by a Las Vegas jury to pay a combined $500 million in punitive damages to a man who contracted hepatitis C due to an unsafe medical procedure, not a drug, the jury may have gone too far.Obviously, there's no love lost between the American consumer and Big Pharma. But when Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA) and Baxter International (BAX) were ordered Friday by a Las Vegas jury to pay a combined $500 million in punitive damages to a man who contracted hepatitis C due to an unsafe medical procedure, not a drug, one can't help but wonder if the loathing has gone too far.

The story began a couple years back when a hepatitis C outbreak in Nevada was traced to two clinics that used a generic anesthetic called propofol sold by Teva and Baxter in colonoscopy procedures. Clinic staff used the same syringe (not needle) to draw up additional medication for the same patient, thus possibly contaminating the vial. They then used the same vial for other patients, even though the vial was labeled for single patient use.

Reuse of Single-Use Vials

Health officials have put the blame for infecting patients with the incurable liver disease on reuse of the vials. "Each of the 63,000 possible patient exposures identified in this investigation were entirely preventable, and would not have occurred if clinic staff had adhered to well-established, safe, and common sense injection practices," the report concludes. More than 100 cases of Hep C infection were traced to these incidents.

Why then were Teva and Baxter found liable? Well, according to Las Vegas Review-Journal, plaintiff lawyers blamed the drugmakers for encouraging the misuse of the vials by selling the clinic large 50-milliliter vials of propofol, which is four to five times more than needed for a typical colonoscopy. They knew of the possibility the vials were being misused, the lawyers said, but encouraged the reuse of the vials through their marketing practices and unclear labeling.

The lawyers also claimed there were previous hepatitis C outbreaks that were linked to the practice, yet the companies continued to make and sell the large vials to endoscopy centers because they were more profitable than safer 10-milliliter vials.

The doctors and nurses from the clinic involved in the case settled their medical malpractice claims a few weeks before the trial. Dipak Desai, the doctor who ran the clinic, has since not only surrendered his license but also filed for bankruptcy, effectively putting all suits against him on hold.

Drugmakers Plan to Appeal

Teva and Baxter, which plan to appeal the charges, said there are plenty of uses for which 20- and 50-milliliter vials are acceptable and that the previous infections were also due to "poor techniques for maintaining a sterile environment." Teva said in a statement that the label for its propofol product "clearly states that it is for single patient use only and that aseptic procedures should be used at all times." It added that "the jury should have been allowed to hear all of the evidence in this case," which it wasn't.

At what point, then, does the companies' responsibility end and the medical practitioners' begin? This editorial at the Las Vegas Review-Journal claims it was greed, not justice, that guided plaintiff and lawyers. Indeed, one has to wonder if they weren't simply after deeper pockets. AboutLawSuits.com says this lawsuit targeted the pharmaceutical companies since the owner of the clinics only had $3 million in insurance.

Still, juries bought the argument that somehow the companies encouraged staff to abandon "infection-control practices taught to first-year medical and nursing students everywhere." And reading all the jurors' comments about the companies' profits, one can't help but wonder if this case was just used as an excuse to "stick it" to Big Pharma.
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