ST. PETERSBURG — Rather than take the chance its blockbuster hormone drug Prempro would be labeled a public hazard, Pfizer's Wyeth unit agreed Friday to release up to 300,000 corporate documents hidden under court seal for the past several years.
The documents are related to Wyeth's development, sales and marketing of hormone medicines that posted $1.2-billion in sales last year. Prempro, a combination of estrogen and progestin, and estrogen-only Premarin are subject to more than 9,000 lawsuits nationwide by women who claim the drugs caused breast cancer, stroke and other illnesses.
Most of those cases are in federal court where discovery documents have been sealed from public view under a protective order. But a single case, that of Loretta Esposito, a 63-year-old Clearwater woman who died of breast cancer, remained in state court in Pinellas County.
Since Florida law forbids protective court orders if they conceal a public hazard, Esposito's lawyers were ready to prove that Prempro fit that definition in a public hearing set for Monday. As the deadline neared, Pfizer, which acquired Wyeth in mid-October, blinked.
On Friday afternoon, the drug maker's lawyers told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino that it would hand over the documents, eliminating the need for the public hazard hearing. The lawyers will still meet before Rondolino Monday morning to hash out the details of the agreement.
Edward Gerecke, the Tampa attorney representing Pfizer, said the company would still insist on confidentiality for documents dealing with two new hormone drugs under development. Rondolino, however, made it clear that he expects few exceptions to the disclosures.
"I will not hesitate to be all over the defendants if it seems like they are playing the game, but really not doing it," Rondolino said.
Christopher Loder, Pfizer's spokesman, said the company withdrew its demands that the papers be kept secret for expediency's sake.
"Given that the documents in dispute were a small subset of Wyeth's overall document production in the hormone therapy litigation, and some of them had already been disclosed, they did not warrant plaintiffs' attempt to have lengthy court proceedings over them," he said. "We continue to maintain that there is no merit to the plaintiff's claims in this case."
While Pfizer was making the concession in the Florida litigation, it lost a federal case in Philadelphia. Friday afternoon, jurors found the company's hormone drugs were substantial contributing factors to an Illinois woman's breast cancer. Two Pfizer units were judged liable for at least $6.3-million in damages.
Since 2006, Pfizer's Wyeth unit has lost six of nine jury verdicts, including the last four in a row.
Regarding the Philadelphia verdict, the company spokesman, said, "We are obviously disappointed with the verdict."
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected] or (727)892-2996.