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High Court Refuses to Hear Pfizer's Appeal of Nigerian Trovan Lawsuit

Jun 30, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

A U.S. lawsuit against Pfizer Inc. on behalf of Nigerian families who claim their children were subjected to non-consensual drug testing will be allowed to go forward. According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up a Pfizer appeal of the lawsuit.

The alleged testing involved the antibiotic Trovan. Pfizer conducted clinical trials of Trovan in Nigeria in 1996, during an epidemic of meningitis. Families of about 200 children have sued Pfizer, claiming Trovan caused injuries, and in some cases deaths. Their lawsuit alleged Pfizer violated international law by failing to obtain adequate consent from the patients.

According to a Reuters report, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Trovan for use by adults only in 1998. After reports of liver failure, its use in the US was restricted to adult emergency care. The European Union banned its use in 1999.

The Nigerian families wanted to have the case heard in the US, citing widespread corruption in their home country. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the suit was filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a 200-year-old law which empowers federal judges to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of the “law of nations.”

Pfizer has denied that the Trovan trials were carried out without the families’ consent. In its appeal, the company argued that the case should be thrown out of court because the alleged drug experiments are not the precise type of international law violation covered under the ATS.

A federal judge initially dismissed the lawsuits, ruling the cases should be heard in Nigeria, not the US. But the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York had disagreed with Pfizer’s argument, and voted 2 to 1 to allow the suit to go forward. Pfizer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that the appeals court’s decision “dramatically expanded” the types of cases that could be brought under the ATS.

The High Court refused to hear Pfizer’s appeal without comment. According to Reuters, the case will now go back to a federal judge in New York. Pfizer can again ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it should be heard in Nigeria, and for various other reasons.

The Trovan scandal also prompted the Nigerian government to file suits against Pfizer. Last July, Pfizer announced it would pay a $75 million settlement in exchange for the dismissal of civil and criminal charges in that country, The Christian Science Monitor said.

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