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San Diego Dietary Supplement Firm Loses Second Suit, Must Pay $7.46 Million

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Jun. 24--Metabolife International yesterday was ordered to pay $7.46 million to a Texas woman who suffered a stroke after taking the company's ephedra diet pill. It is at least the second jury award against the San Diego dietary supplement company and its now-discontinued flagship product, Metabolife 356. In November 2002, a federal jury in Alabama awarded $4.1 million in damages to four people who suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking Metabolife 356. In April, federal regulators banned the use of ephedra supplement products after the herbal stimulant was linked to 155 deaths and numerous serious injuries.

Jurors in a Houston state court deliberated about six hours before finding that Metabolife was responsible for the stroke that 35-year-old Rhea McAllister suffered in 2002.

"Originally it was going to be significantly more" than the $5 million in punitive damages, said jury forewoman Tiffany Griffith, 21. She said the jury considered the views of both sides and "we decided that $5 million was enough to let them wake up a bit." Actual damages were $2.46 million. Texas law will likely cap the punitive damages, and since the jury decided McAllister was partially at fault for not heeding a warning label, she may get only about $2.7 million.

Jan Strode, a spokeswoman for Metabolife, said the company intends to appeal the verdict.

"Metabolife was disappointed to find that clinical studies, personal responsibility and the true facts did not prevail," Strode said. "Scientific studies have demonstrated repeatedly that Metabolife's products when taken as directed are safe."

Metabolife has lost two out of three personal injury cases that have made it to a jury in the last 18 months. The company won a case in December 2002, when a California jury determined that there was no evidence to link Metabolife 356 with a stoke suffered by Upland resident Tom Hendriksen. Though only a trickle of cases make it to court, there is a torrent in the making: earlier this year, the California Supreme Court ordered all Metabolife personal injury lawsuits filed in the state to be moved to the San Diego courtroom of Superior Court Judge Ronald Styne. A hearing is expected next month to determine which of the approximately 100 personal injury lawsuits filed against Metabolife will go to trial first, according to James Frantz, an attorney who represents several consumers with personal injury cases against Metabolife.

Metabolife has made no settlement offer to resolve the California lawsuits, Frantz said. Another 50 to 75 personal injury lawsuits have been moved to one court in New York, and there are other cases pending in other states. According to public documents, Metabolife or its insurers have paid at least $5 million to settle 29 other cases.

"We expect to do it one case at a time," Frantz said. Ed Blizzard, McAllister's lawyer, said the jury award shows that Metabolife is "being held accountable for their actions.

"For seven years, Metabolife kept from the government information that people who were taking their product were suffering serious injury," Blizzard said. At the time McAllister suffered the stroke, she worked in human resources for Goodwill Industries. Afterwards, she was unable to walk or feed herself for a time, her lawyers said.

McAllister, who bought the supplement hoping it would help burn off some extra weight, took the compound for about a month before suffering the stroke, her lawyers told jurors.

--Bloomberg News contributed to this report.


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