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Zoloft case dismissed, expert held inadmissible. (NATIONAL REPORT).

A product liability action over the prescription drug Zoloft was dismissed after the judge ruled that the testimony of the plaintiffs' primary expert was not admissible as evidence. The family of Daryl Dempsay, who had gone on a violent, ultimately suicidal, rampage had sued Pfizer on the grounds that the company's product, Zoloft, had caused the behavior, but the plaintiffs' lone expert witness on causation was found by the court to be "not qualified to testify as an expert regarding the ability of clinical trials, scientific studies, or case histories to establish an association or a causal relationship."

Dempsay had been taking Zoloft for two months when he stabbed his wife, Ronda Smith, and their two children before fatally shooting himself. Smith and the children suffered superficial wounds, and Smith filed a lawsuit against Pfizer alleging wrongful death and asserting liability based upon failure to test and to warn, marketing defects, and misrepresentations. Pfizer contended that Zoloft did not cause the behavior, pointing out that Dempsay had a long history of drug abuse and alcohol abuse and that he had taken large amounts of the prescription drug Xanax in the days leading up to the attack.

John T Maltsberger, the expert witness for the plaintiffs, is a general psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, suicidologist, and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He was scheduled to testify that Zoloft "constitutes a proximate cause of this patient's violent outburst" and "is well understood to precipitate hypomanic episodes in vulnerable individuals." During Maltsberger's deposition, he also eliminated alcoholism and drug abuse as causants and opined that Zolbft was inadequately labeled in relation to its possible side effects.

Pfizer argued against the admissibility of Maltsberger's testimony, claiming that he is not a psychopharn acologist or epidemiologist and, therefore, "has no expertise in the mechanisms of how drugs affect the human body, or in designing or analyzing clinical trial or other epidemiological data."

Under the current understanding of the admissibility of expert opinion, the burden of proving admissibility is on the party proffering the testimony, and Judge Carlos Murguia ruled that the plaintiffs were not successful in defending themselves against Pfizer's claim that Maltsberger was unqualifled to testify on causation. As the plaintiffs had no other expert witnesses, Murguia granted Pfizer a summary judgment.

The standards for what types of expert opinion are admissible have changed in the past decade. A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court Opinion, Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, set a standard which replaced a 70-year-old decision finding that expert opinion" must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs."

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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 2001
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