Patch Work: Schlichter Bogard & Denton Seek Plaintiffs for East St. Louis Trials

St. Louis Business Journal

by Julia M. Johnson

St. Louis could become a major player in nationwide legal action involving Raritan, N.J.-based drug maker Ortho-McNeil, following claims that the company's Ortho Evra birth-control patch may have caused blood clot problems and other serious side effects in users.

Jerry Schlichter, partner with the Schlichter Bogard & Denton, said the local law firm filed 26 new cases in late January for plaintiffs who feel the patch caused serious health problems. These follow a December 2005 case Schlichter's office filed on behalf of St. Louis teenager Ashley Lewis, whose guardian, Bintha Lewis, claimed the patch's effects were responsible for Ashley's December 2003 death. Schlichter said Ashley was an otherwise healthy teen who died from multiple pulmonary emboli, or sudden arterial blockages in the lungs due to blood clots.

He said the filing of the 27 lawsuits in St. Louis is significant because only 35 to 40 other similar Ortho Evra cases have been filed across the country. Schlichter Bogard & Denton has five attorneys working on the cases. Monetary restitution is being sought by the plaintiffs to cover their medical bills and continuing health effects. Schlichter said he could not state how much they are seeking because many of the patients' medical bills are ongoing.

Schlichter's firm filed a case two weeks ago requesting national class-action certification for medical monitoring of patients who may have further complications associated with the Ortho Evra patch. Medical monitoring is needed because it's just as important to screen patch users who haven't yet been adversely affected as it is to treat those who have, according to Schlichter.

He said a multi-district litigation panel was requested by other U.S. law firms last month to choose a court where these cases will be centralized for discovery purposes. Schlichter is requesting that if such a site is selected, it should be in East St. Louis because more cases are pending in the St. Louis area than anywhere else.

The Food & Drug Administration announced Nov. 10 that the Ortho Evra patch delivers levels of estrogen about 60 percent higher than most daily birth-control pills, and that it can put patients at higher risk for blood clots. At the same time, the FDA approved updated labeling for the Ortho Evra patch to explain the potential risk. Ortho-McNeil, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, also posted a notice on its Web site. But according to Schlichter, the warnings didn't come in time for Ashley Lewis or other Ortho Evra users being represented by local law firms.

He said the new plaintiffs include young women from St. Louis, Southwestern Illinois, Cape Girardeau, Hannibal and other Missouri cities. Their lawsuits claim Ortho-McNeil knew of the drug's potential risks before November 2005.

Ortho-McNeil Women's Health division spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said the company would not comment on the litigation. The company has said the Ortho Evra patch, which first hit the market in 2002, is safe to use.

Schlichter said that the 26 plaintiffs he just filed cases for are suffering from blood clots as well as "a variety of other conditions," requiring some of the patients to be on blood-thinning drugs the rest of their lives. Other plaintiffs had heart-related health problems, and some were told by their doctors that they should not have elective surgery or get pregnant because of blood-clot risks, Schlichter said.

"Most of the plaintiffs are in their late teens and early 20s," he said. "Generally speaking, they are young, active and otherwise healthy."

Schlichter Bogard & Denton ran ads in local newspapers encouraging potential Ortho Evra plaintiffs to contact the firm. The Brown & Crouppen law firm, based in downtown St. Louis, also is looking to connect with potential Ortho Evra plaintiffs. The firm's Web site encourages Ortho Evra users who have suffered strokes, blood clots and other side effects to contact its office. John Driscoll, an attorney with the firm, said Brown & Crouppen expects to file a number of lawsuits over the next couple of months on behalf of Ortho Evra users who have suffered health problems. Driscoll said his firm did some television advertising to attract potential plaintiffs last fall, around the time the FDA issued its announcement about the patch.

"We are representing women in various federal and state cases across the nation, but they are primarily from the greater St. Louis area," Driscoll said.

Ortho Evra was the first skin patch approved for birth-control use, according to the FDA. It is the only contraceptive patch currently on the market, according to Carl Collignon, a pharmacist with Walgreens Drug Stores in St. Louis. He said a 28-day supply of Ortho Evra typically costs about $56 in the St. Louis area.

The FDA has said it is continuing to monitor safety reports on the Ortho Evra patch. FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan said the agency is asking Ortho-McNeil to conduct additional studies on the drug's effects.

According to information on Johnson & Johnson's Web site, more than 5 million women have used the Ortho Evra patch. Johnson & Johnson also makes oral contraceptives such as Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo. The company's latest annual report, released in March 2005, said its hormonal contraceptives accounted for $1.3 billion in 2004 sales.