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Mahr v. G.d. Searle & Co.






Rehearing denied June 27, 1979.

The defendant, G.D. Searle & Company (Searle), appeals from the entry of judgment in the Circuit Court of Cook County on a jury verdict for the plaintiff in the sum of $100,000. The plaintiff's amended complaint, filed on behalf of the husband and son of the deceased, alleged a cause of action for wrongful death and premised liability on Searle's manufacture and distribution of the oral contraceptive Enovid *fn1 without adequate warning of possible adverse effects. The deceased, Sandra Brewer, was alleged to have died as the result of an occlusion of the left internal carotid artery caused by the regular ingestion of Enovid. The record discloses the following facts as material to the issues raised by this appeal.

Sandra Brewer was born August 17, 1941. The evidence depositions of Sandra's mother and father indicate that the deceased enjoyed good health up to the time of the illness which resulted in her death. The father noted that Sandra had been using diet pills and that she had stopped taking them a substantial period of time prior to her death. These diet pills were shown to the attending physician at the Harris Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where Sandra was admitted following the manifestation of the illness which led to her death. Neither parent was aware of any history of ill health in Sandra's family. The family physician who treated Sandra from the time she was six years old until her marriage testified in his deposition that she was in good health during this period and that she had no history of convulsions.

Norman Elliot Brewer testified that his wife, Sandra, began taking Enovid for birth control purposes about one month following the birth of their son in 1963. The contraceptive was originally obtained on the prescription of Dr. Thomas Carroll Ford and later renewed on the prescription of Dr. Earl U. Sharf in May 1965. Brewer indicated that Sandra took the drug regularly until her final hospitalization in December 1966, at which time it was discontinued on order of the attending physician. In the early part of 1965 Sandra experienced and complained of blackouts or memory lapses, dizziness, headaches and tingling in the fingers. She consulted an osteopathic physician, Dr. George Luibel, who diagnosed an infection. In August 1965 the Brewers vacationed at Port Isabel, Texas, where Sandra experienced fainting and vomitting. These symptoms cleared up within a day and no treatment or medical advice was sought at that time.

In 1966 the Brewers visited the husband's parents in Breckenridge, Texas, for the Memorial Day holiday. Early in the morning on May 30, Sandra experienced, while sleeping, what the husband described as a seizure. Sandra was taken to the emergency room of Stevens Memorial Hospital in Breckenridge and there attended by Dr. Edwin Goodall, who was substituting for Dr. Ford. Sandra was discharged the next day. The following day she was seen by Dr. William McKinney in Fort Worth, to whom she was referred by Dr. Goodall. Dr. McKinney administered an electroencephalogram (EEG) and prescribed an anticonvulsant drug for Sandra. After the 30 anticonvulsant pills were used, the prescription was not renewed. In October 1966 Sandra had a second seizure and was admitted to an osteopathic hospital in Fort Worth by Dr. Luibel. She was discharged three days later, at which time Dr. McKinney advised her by telephone to refill the anticonvulsant prescription. Brewer indicated that the diet pills his wife was using had been prescribed and supplied for her by Dr. O.W. Dana. Brewer noted that Sandra was about 5'1" tall and that she weighed 140 pounds.

In December 1966 Sandra sustained a third seizure while sitting on the edge of her bed. Dr. Luibel was consulted and Sandra's condition got worse. On December 30 she was admitted to Fort Worth's Harris Hospital with a paralysis of the right side of the body. The attending physician, Dr. George Prewitt, was given the remaining birth control pills and diet pills which Sandra had been taking. It was diagnosed that Sandra had suffered a cerebral vascular accident (stroke) resulting in the paralysis of the right side. For a while Sandra improved and was able to walk dragging the right leg. Between therapy sessions she was allowed to leave the hospital in the company of her husband. At this time Sandra was able to communicate only with the use of about three words. Sandra suffered a relapse in the latter part of January 1967, after which she became comatose and died on January 27.

It is not clear whether Dr. Luibel, Dr. Goodall or Dr. McKinney were aware that Sandra was using birth control pills. On cross-examination, however, Brewer did state that he never informed Dr. Luibel about his wife's use of Enovid.

Dr. Thomas Carroll Ford testified in his deposition that he was a physician in general practice in Breckenridge, Texas. He indicated that he cared for Sandra Brewer during and after her pregnancy in 1962-63. While she was pregnant Sandra's weight increased from 154 pounds to 190 1/2 pounds. Following the birth of Norman Brewer, in March 1963, Dr. Ford prescribed Enovid for Sandra; he wrote a prescription for a one-month supply of the pills and automatic renewal. Dr. Ford testified his patient was in good health and without signs of edema or circulatory problems; he indicated that her delivery had been normal. The doctor did not recall receiving so-called "Dear Doctor letters" from Searle during 1962-63; one of these letters related the fact that two California women had died while using Enovid. Ford stated that he was familiar with Searle's prescribing information concerning Enovid (package inserts), and that he had read the advertisements for the drug which indicated some women experienced weight gain, nausea and headaches with the use of Enovid. Dr. Ford also said that had he received any literature from Searle regarding Enovid he would have paid attention to it. Following Sandra's move from Breckenridge to Fort Worth in 1964, this doctor did not see her again as a patient.

The Enovid-E which Sandra was taking at the time of her admission to Harris Hospital in December 1966 was prescribed by Dr. Sharf, a Fort Worth specialist in internal medicine. However, Dr. Sharf could not locate his office records and did not recall prescribing the drug for Sandra; he did remember treating her for something very insignificant on one occasion.

In his deposition, Dr. Luibel testified he first treated Sandra in December 1965. She complained then of frequent and burning urination. There were no neurological complaints at that time. In October 1966 Dr. Luibel admitted Sandra to the Fort Worth Osteopathic Hospital for treatment of abdominal pains, cramping and a colon infection. She was discharged from the hospital three days later. On December 29, 1966, Dr. Luibel was called to see her at which time she was unable to speak. He gave her an injection of Compazine and suggested that she return to her anticonvulsant medication and discontinue her diet pills. The next day Sandra displayed positive hemi-paralysis of the right side, and Dr. Luibel referred her to Dr. George Prewitt.

Dr. Goodall, a Breckenridge physician in general practice, testified by deposition that he saw Sandra Brewer for the first time on May 30, 1966, in the emergency room of Stephens Memorial Hospital. From the description of the movements supplied by the husband to the emergency room nurse, Dr. Goodall diagnosed Sandra's condition as being a Jacksonian type seizure. She was admitted to the hospital for observation and discharged within a day.

The deposition of Dr. McKinney, a board-certified neurosurgeon in Forth Worth, indicates that he saw Sandra on referral from Dr. Goodall on June 1, 1966. He found no significant neurological symptoms and arranged for Sandra to have an EEG. The results of the EEG, as interpreted by Dr. Prewitt, revealed a mildly abnormal brain wave. No specific clinical correlation or diagnosis was assigned to Sandra's condition.

Dr. Prewitt, a neurologist on the staff at Forth Worth's Harris Hospital, assumed charge of Sandra's case upon her admission to the hospital in December 1966. He testified in his deposition he first saw the deceased in the hospital emergency room on December 30, at which time she was paralyzed on the right side of the body from a stroke. A spinal tap was performed which, along with other preliminary tests, disclosed no positive findings. An electrocardiogram (EKG), however, did indicate some findings which were not normal; these findings were never explained. A carotid arteriogram was performed, the results of which indicated a "beading appearance" in the left internal carotid artery. Dr. Prewitt tentatively diagnosed a spasm within the artery causing a blockage in the flow of blood to the left side of the brain. A second arteriogram was done and the results looked the same. Dr. Prewitt ruled out a spasm at that time and then believed that the blockage was due to a thrombosis (blood clot arising at the site of its formation). His review of the arteriograms disclosed an almost complete occlusion in the left internal carotid artery. This occlusion led to the patient's stroke and the resulting paralysis as well as the convulsions that had been experienced. Dr. Prewitt testified that he suspected that Enovid, the contraceptive pills Sandra had been taking, was responsible for the thrombosis. His other suspicion, fibromusculature hypoplasia, was definitively ruled out by the autopsy study.

Dr. Prewitt consulted with a hematologist, Dr. E. Richard Haulden; a program of Heparin therapy was ordered. Heparin is a drug which is used to reduce and dissolve clots. Sandra's condition improved for a while and she began to communicate through "yes" and "no" responses. On January 20, 1967, the patient suffered another convulsion and she relapsed into a state of deepening loss of consciousness. Sandra's brain began to swell and the dosage of Heparin was radically increased. On January 25 the Heparin was discontinued because the reduced clotting was affecting Sandra's ability to breathe — increased bleeding in her system had blocked her airways. On January 27 Sandra died from marked respiratory distress and extreme fever, both secondary to the thrombosis within the carotid artery. Dr. Prewitt testified that it was his opinion that Enovid causally contributed to Sandra's death. The fact that she had been taking the drug for several years did not rule out the contraceptive as the cause of the condition resulting in her death.

In his evidence deposition, Dr. Fred Aurin, a specialist in vascular surgery, testified that he was consulted by Dr. Prewitt for the purpose of evaluating Sandra's condition upon admission to Harris Hospital. His examination was conducted on January 5, 1967, at which time he also evaluated the arteriograms and concurred in Dr. Prewitt's interpretation. He noted an obstruction and occlusion of the internal carotid artery, two centimeters above the origin of the inner carotid artery on the left side. The occlusion displayed an unusual "beading appearance" and Dr. Aurin thought this to be rare in view of the patient's age and medical history. He suspected three reasons for the occlusion: congenital lesion, blood clot or malcoagulation of the blood flowing through the involved vessel. He testified that the internal carotid artery furnished blood to the left side of the brain and that surgery was ruled out in Sandra's case because of the location of the occlusion.

Dr. Aurin reviewed the autopsy findings and indicated that there had been a thorough and complete post-mortem examination of the arterial sections. However, he thought that in the autopsy report the description of the occluded area was ambiguous and for this reason a congenital lesion could not be positively ruled out. Nevertheless, it was Dr. Aurin's opinion that the unusual "beading appearance" also could lead one to the conclusion that the occlusion had formed as the result of Sandra's use of Enovid. Like Dr. Prewitt, he did not believe the length of the use of the contraceptive ruled out the possibility of its being causally related to the blockage of the artery.

Dr. Haulden, a hematologist and a specialist in internal medicine and clinical pathology, testified that he was consulted by Dr. Prewitt for the purpose of evaluating Sandra's condition and treatment. After seeing the patient at the Harris Hospital on January 8, 1967, Dr. Haulden suspected that the blockage was caused by cerebral embolism. Unlike a thrombosis, an embolism is a blood clot which forms in one part of the body, breaks free, and travels through the blood vessels until it lodges elsewhere. This suspicion, however, was later ruled out by the autopsy. Dr. Haulden prescribed Heparin to dissolve the blockage and noted that he expected Sandra's blood clotting time to be about 30 minutes with the administration of the drug — it was in fact, only 16 minutes. Indicating that this resistance to Heparin was unusual, this doctor testified it was his opinion that the short clotting time was in response to the occlusion itself and not indicative of abnormal clotting factors pre-existing in the patient's system.

Dr. Haulden noted that medicine rarely supplies a definitive answer or diagnosis; nevertheless, he offered an opinion as to the cause of Sandra's condition and the resulting death. Based on experience in clinical practice, the age of the deceased, the presence of hypercoagulability, the disclosure by the autopsy of a normal arterial system and the absence of another satisfactory etiological explanation, Dr. Haulden stated that there was a causal connection between the deceased's use of Enovid and the occlusion of the carotid artery which produced death. He also believed that Sandra's length of use of the drug did not rule out the causal factor.

Dr. E. Ross Kyger, Jr., a board-certified specialist in internal medicine was also consulted in Sandra's case. He revealed in his deposition that he attended Sandra twice each day for three weeks following January 1, 1967. He testified that he was aware of the patient's history of Enovid use and that it was rare for a woman of 25 years to suffer a stroke as the result of a blood clot. Dr. Kyger reviewed the autopsy results and was of the opinion that no vascular disease had been found to account for the formation of the clot. *fn2 He believed the clot to be a thrombosis and not an embolism, and it was his opinion that the use of Enovid played a significant and important part in the production of the blood clot which led to Sandra's death. He stated that the length of use of the contraceptive could mitigate against its being a cause of the clot; nevertheless, the length of use would not rule out the causal connection entirely. He also noted that obesity is a factor which can trigger a clot, but only in the event there is pre-existing disease of the blood vessel walls, a disease Sandra did not have.

The autopsy performed on the body of Sandra Brewer was conducted by Dr. Donald M. Cohen, a board-certified pathologist. Dr. Cohen testified by deposition that the autopsy was done on the date of death, January 27, 1967. He indicated that he found no positive findings within the arterial system or venous system other than the occlusion of the left internal carotid artery and multiple thrombi in the medium sized arteries of the cerebral area. He found the cause of death to be the marked destruction of the brain as a result of the occlusion — a condition which produced pneumonia, the immediate cause of death. Dr. Cohen found no evidence of congenital defects or fibromuscular hypoplasia. The blood clot was found to be in the early stages of organization, no more than a few weeks old.

The plaintiff called Dr. Irwin Clinton Winter, Searle's vice-president for medical affairs, to testify as an adverse witness pursuant to section 60 of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, par. 60). He was also called as a witness for the defendant. Dr. Winter testified Enovid was first marketed and approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for contraceptive purposes in 1960. For several years Searle had a monopoly on contraceptive pills in the United States. Dr. Winter noted that prior to 1960 it was known for at least 20 years that the synthetic hormones used in the manufacture of Enovid produced metabolic changes in humans. He noted that these hormones had been found to affect certain factors involved in the blood clotting process. Some researchers found factors promoting the process to increase, while others found factors inhibiting the process to decrease.

Soon after 1960 Searle began to supply brochures to physicians and clinics for distribution to women for whom Enovid had been prescribed for birth control. *fn3 Dr. Winter testified that these brochures were not supplied directly to the women for whom Enovid had been prescribed and that the company never furnished any information about Enovid directly to the ultimate consumer until 1970, by which time the FDA had promulgated rules which required the uniform labeling of contraceptives and written warnings with every original and refill prescription. *fn4

According to Dr. Winter several hundred articles concerning oral contraceptives have appeared in medical and scientific journals. Some of these articles were published prior to 1967 and suggested a connection between the use of oral contraceptives and the development or increased risk of thrombophlebitic disorders as manifested by findings indicating significant changes in blood clotting factors. (See, e.g., Margulis, Ambrus, Mink & Stryker, Progestational Agents and Blood Coagulation, 93 Am. J. Obst. & Gynec. 161 (1965); Thomson & Poller, Oral Contraceptive Hormones and Blood Coagulability, Brit. Med. J. 270 (July 31, 1965); Egeberg & Owren, Oral Contraception and Blood Coagulability, Brit. Med. J. 220 (Jan. 26, 1963).) Dr. Winter acknowledged that many of these articles had been received by the medical library at Searle and that he was familiar with the content and conclusions which had been published in them.

In 1962 Searle paid Dr. L.O. Pilgeram, a biochemist associated with the University of Minnesota, $3000 to conduct a study on the blood clotting effects of Enovid. Originally, Dr. Pilgeram had indicated that he believed the study would vindicate the drug; however, upon completion of the study he reported the research showed that Enovid produced significant changes in the blood clotting factors. He recommended the drug be withdrawn from the market until further studies could be made. He offered to conduct these studies if Searle would underwrite the costs. Upon receipt of Dr. Pilgeram's report Searle submitted it to several experts for their review and criticism. According to Dr. Winter, the comments obtained from these experts were for the most part negative — Pilgeram's methodology and conclusions were attacked. Searle never disclosed the Pilgeram report to the medical community; however, it was submitted to the FDA for filing with the new drug application regarding Envoid. Dr. Pilgeram later published his findings in the United Kingdom. His offer to conduct further studies for Searle was declined and the record indicates that these studies were never undertaken on behalf of Searle.

Dr. Winter testified Searle was aware that in 1961 two young women in Los Angeles died while using Enovid. Both of these women were the victims of pulmonary embolism and the subject of widespread new reports inculpating birth control pills. Responding to these deaths and reports of clotting problems and other deaths among women using oral contraceptives, Searle reported to physicians in the United States in a series of so-called "Dear Doctor" letters. The letters, dated August 7 and December 26, 1962, and August 7, 1963, indicated that no causal connection between oral contraceptives and thromboembolic disorders had been demonstrated. They also indicated there was no available data to show a significant increase in the risk of death from blood clots among women using Enovid. Nevertheless, Searle requested physicians to report to the company all instances of thrombophlebitic disease developing in patients taking Enovid and assured the medical community that animal studies would be undertaken to gain further information. Results of these animal studies were never reported.

Meanwhile, several professional and governmental bodies, including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the FDA also began to look into the problem. Their reports revealed no significant statistical increase in blood clots or deaths among the population of women likely to be using Enovid. One of the reports submitted to the FDA by AMA through its Advisory Committee on Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1966 even suggested that oral contraceptives protect against clotting disorders. However, Searle and the FDA continued to recommend caution. Further research was conducted and the package inserts for Enovid were modified several times between 1962 and 1965.

Searle modified the package inserts by alerting physicians to thrombophlebitic problems in patients using Enovid as well as those who did not. In 1963 the company began to contraindicate Enovid for women with a prior history of thrombophlebitis or pulmonary embolism. The package insert for Enovid-E dated January 18, 1965, was the latest official prescribing information applicable to the contraceptive prescription Sandra Brewer was using just prior to her final hospitalization. Under the heading "Contraindications" the company listed:

"3. Previous Thrombophlebitis or Plumonary Embolism. Enovid-E is cffntraindicated in these patients unless the reason for its use in the judgment of the physician is overwhelming."

The "precautions" portion of the package insert presented a lengthy discussion of the blood clotting problem as an effect of oral contraceptive use. Under the subheading "Thrombophlebitis" Searle pointed out the ambiguity of knowledge linking Enovid to "hypercoagulability" and acknowledged the fact that the drug produces changes in clotting factors similar to those fouund during pregnancy. This section also noted the abundancy of published studies "to support the concept that the incidence of thrombotic episodes increases with age, parity, obesity [etc.]." This section of the package insert concluded with the statement:

"It seems a reasonable conclusion that these women [i.e., those with known predisposing factors linked to thrombosis] should be closely observed for the development of thromboembolic disease, whether or not they are receiving Enovid, particularly when they present signs and symptoms suggestive of acute pulmonary disease, even in the absence of clinical signs of peripheral thrombosis."

In all the information supplied to physicians prior to Sandra's death Searle continued to announce that no cause/effect relationship had been demonstrated between Enovid and an increased risk of blood clotting disorders. Likewise, the company never warned physicians to monitor patients using Enovid in a manner different from the monitoring of those not using it, nor did it suggest Enovid be prescribed under circumstances which would insure a regular checkup for women using the drug. In January 1963 the FDA extended the recommended prescribing period for Enovid from two to four years. Thus, it became possible for a woman to secure a prescription for Enovid upon a single visit to a physician and then use it for years without further medical supervision.

Dr. Winter indicated that in addition to the "Dear Doctor" letters and the package inserts, Searle kept in contact with the medical community by way of its sales personnel (detailmen). Each physician in the United States was contacted an average of once every three months by a detailman. To assist them in their sales efforts Searle supplied various items for distribution as promotion pieces for Enovid. The detailmen were not trained to discuss the adverse effects of Enovid with the physicians on their sales routes; however, official prescribing information for Enovid was supplied to each physician whenever the detailmen made a call. The sales force also distributed information concerning Enovid to clinics, hospitals, nurses and pharmacists, and was encouraged to enlist the aid of everyone associated with the medical community for the purpose of promoting the demand for oral contraceptives and the sale of Enovid. The plaintiff introduced into evidence several documents which Searle addressed to its sales personnel in the campaign to promote the sale of Enovid. These documents present Enovid as a safe, unique, problem-solving pharmaceutical capable of producing substantial profits for Searle and its detailmen once exposed to the medical profession and the consuming public.

Throughout his testimony Dr. Winter maintained it has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that the use of oral contraceptives is causally related to the development of blood clots in humans. He criticized the studies which indicate a causal relation as being, for the most part, retrospective in design or affected by significant losses in follow-up studies. He noted the decision to market Enovid for birth control purposes was made by Searle and the FDA on the basis of information available at the time — information which, in his opinion, indicated that Enovid was a safe product when distributed to consumers only through the intervention of well-trained physicians. In his opinion the physicians who prescribe Enovid are knowledgeable in the processes of blood clotting, and the exercise of professional judgment in prescribing Enovid is made in light of this knowledge as well as the information supplied to them by Searle and that contained in the medical literature.

Dr. Fedor Bachmann was called as an expert witness for the plaintiff. As a specialist in hematology he directs the blood coagulation laboratory and thrombosis research unit located in the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Bachmann testified that prior to 1965 research had established that the hormones used in the manufacture of oral contraceptives, including Enovid, elevated certain clotting factors in human blood. These elevations result in an increase in the metabolic processes which cause blood to clot. Following 1967 it was discovered that oral contraceptive hormones also decrease the level of antithrombin III, a blood factor which inhibits the clotting processes. By 1970 studies had determined not only significant changes in the clotting factors, but also the fact that oral contraceptives induce blood clots in the circulating blood system. Dr. Bachmann stated, "It is my firm opinion that Enovid and other [birth control] pills to contribute to increased coagulation, that there is a positive relationship between clotting and the usage of the pill." With respect to the warnings expressed in the January 18, 1965, package insert and those in the unofficial prescribing literature listed in the 1965 edition of Physician's Desk Reference, Dr. Bachmann testified that they were inadequate in not specifically alerting physicians to specially monitor patients using Enovid for thrombosis, and in not directing the immediate withdrawal of the drug once thrombotic symptoms were manifest. It was his impression that the cautions provided by Searle were effectively "watered down."

For the defense, Searle called several expert witnesses in order to refute the plaintiff's evidence tending to establish that oral contraceptives cause thrombotic episodes, that Sandra Brewer suffered a thrombosis due to the use of Enovid, and that the warnings supplied by Searle to prescribing physicians were inadequate. Searle also introduced expert testimony to the effect that Sandra's death was the result of a diseased arterial system caused by her use of diet pills.

Dr. John Henry Isaacs, a board-certified specialist, clinical professor and past-chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Loyola University of Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine, testified he had done some work for Searle regarding the effects of oral contraceptives. It was his opinion that the warnings in the 1965 package inserts regarding Enovid were adequate in light of the information known at that time. He also noted that the link between oral contraceptives and blood clotting disorders was a suspicion of "common ...

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