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Suit Over Metabolife Successful

Dec 4, 2002 | Daily Home Online When Connie Thornburg started taking the over-the-counter diet drug Metabolife 356, she had no idea what the next few years would have in store for her.

Thornburg had to endure a series of major health problems directly associated with her use of Metabolife 356.

“I started taking it in January of 1999,” said Thornburg, a Fayetteville resident. “At the time you couldn’t buy it locally, so I bought it at Brookwood Mall (in Birmingham), and then they started selling it on the Internet and it was a lot cheaper that way.”

Thornburg said she took Metabolife, an appetite suppressant, for approximately six months when she started having health problems.

“In July of 1999 I developed pancreatitis, which is not typical for someone like me,” Thornburg said. “And I told the doctor I was taking an herbal diet pill, but I didn’t think it would have anything to do with me being sick.”

She was treated for the pancreatitis, but the problems persisted. In October 1999, Thornburg had to have gall stones removed, another illness that seemed to perplex her and her doctor.

“I just kept getting sicker, but I kept taking the Metabolife,” she said.

But in January 2000, while Thornburg was in Montgomery on a business trip, she said she began having severe headaches.

“I felt like I was about to pass out,” she said. “And that night after my husband fell asleep, I passed out in the hotel room.”

Thornburg said she was able to crawl to the bathroom, but was unsure as to what was happening to her.

“I just sat in the bathroom and cried. My headache was so bad I thought I was about to die.”

She said she managed to get back into her bed, but spent the evening in pain as she clutched a Bible against her chest.

“I just prayed and asked God to get me through it,” she said.

She attempted to follow through with her business engagement the following day, but as her condition worsened, she found herself in her husband’s car racing home to see her doctor.

“My husband was dragging me in to Dr. (Ghayas) Habash’s office,” she said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re having a stroke.’”

Thornburg was hospitalized after the stroke, and had to return to the hospital several more times in the next few months.

“I had to learn to walk, talk, feed myself,” Thornburg said. She said none of the tests performed on her after her stroke were able to produce any results pointing toward a reason behind her stroke.

She said a friend of hers saw a commercial about the effects of Metabolife, so she brought a bottle of the drug to her neurologist, Dr. Hisham Hakim.

Hakim said he noticed that Metabolife 356 contained a form of ephedra alkaloid called ma huang.

“Who would know it was unhealthy?” Hakim said. “It’s supposedly natural and safe, so no one is going to think it could be harmful.”

Thornburg began working toward filing her lawsuit several months later, secure in the thought that the use of Metabolife has caused her problems.

She said the defense in the court case tried to create the perception that she was at fault.

“But they proved without a shadow of a doubt that this product had never been tested,” Thornburg said.

Thornburg and three other plaintiffs with varying health problems related to their use of Metabolife received a favorable verdict for their efforts.

The four plaintiffs were awarded $4.6 million, but Thornburg said the money does not make up for what she has endured over the past three years.

“I don’t think anything can make up for what happened to all of us,” Thornburg said. “My losses are much worse than what we received from the trial.”

A federal jury in Birmingham found Metabolife 356 was "unreasonably dangerous" under the state's manufacturer liability laws.

The decision was made after reviewing testimony by expert witnesses and thousands of consumer complaints that Metabolife recently turned over to federal regulators.

During the two-week trial, Metabolife's founder and co-owner, Michael Ellis, refused to give a deposition or answer questions posed by the plaintiffs' attorneys, asserting his Fifth Amendment right.

The suit was the first to be heard pertaining to the drug, but Hakim, who served as the expert medical witness in the trial, said he knows that more cases will follow.

“This was the first successful suit,” he said, “but there will be more.”

Metabolife faces more than 100 personal injury cases in state and federal court.

The company is also the subject of criminal investigations by the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

Investigators for the Justice Department are seeking to determine whether Ellis lied to the Food and Drug Administration about the existence of consumer complaints alleging serious side effects caused by the diet pills.

In August, the same day the Justice Department investigation became public, Metabolife turned over 14,700 reports by people who said they experienced health problems from the Metabolife products.

Following the lawsuit in Birmingham, the company said it was turning over an additional 1,480 customer complaints that had been missed earlier because of a computer glitch.

Metabolife has been linked to three deaths, 20 heart attacks and 24 strokes nationwide.

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