In the first such case to make it to trial, Metabolife International was ordered Tuesday to pay $4.1 million to four people who had strokes or heart attacks after taking the company’s ephedra diet pills.
A federal jury in Birmingham, Ala., found the San Diego company’s flagship product, Metabolife 356, was “unreasonably dangerous” under the state’s manufacturer liability laws.
The decision was reached after reviewing testimony by expert witnesses and thousands of consumer complaints that Metabolife recently turned over to federal regulators.
Metabolife’s ephedra products, used in weight loss and to improve athletic performance, contain combinations of caffeine and ephedra, a herbal stimulant.
The ephedra products raise blood pressure and increase the heart rate and have been linked by scientific studies and medical experts to various health problems.
Metabolife, the largest manufacturer of ephedra diet products, insists that the supplements are safe when used as directed.
The company’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Tuesday’s jury decision was “shocking.” Metabolife will appeal, he said.
“The undisputed evidence presented to the jury showed that every single plaintiff conceded that they did not read, much less follow, instructions and warnings on the Metabolife label, including the need to consult a health care practitioner,” Davis said.
“For over 10 years, every human clinical study conducted by respected scientists has shown that these products are safe and effective when taken as directed on the Metabolife label.”
David Fawal, an attorney for the four plaintiffs who sued Metabolife, said the company’s response was “disingenuous.”
Two of the four plaintiffs relied heavily on at least one label marking that was prominently displayed on the front of each Metabolife bottle: “Independently Laboratory Tested for Safety.”
That marking was removed from Metabolife’s product in 2000, after the health problems that involved Fawal’s clients occurred.
During the trial, jurors learned that the so-called safety test listed on Metabolife’s bottle was performed on rats and dogs and involved a Metabolife forerunner product, not Metabolife 356, Fawal said.
The two-week trial was notable for one bizarre twist: Metabolife’s founder and co-owner, Michael Ellis, refused to have his deposition taken or to answer questions posed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, asserting his Fifth Amendment right.
The judge allowed the plaintiffs’ attorneys to question an empty chair.