Pfizer aims to keep CEO off the stand in Chantix trial

Pfizer doesn't want CEO Ian Read to take the stand in a Chantix liability suit. That's not unusual; Johnson & Johnson fought a request that CEO Alex Gorsky testify in person in a trial over alleged Risperdal misconduct. What's different in Pfizer's case is that a judge actually ordered Read to appear.

And now, Pfizer ($PFE) is appealing that order. The drugmaker says Read shouldn't have to hoof it to Alabama for the trial. In its appeal, Pfizer said the order was "plainly beyond the court's subpoena power" because civil procedure prohibits subpoena service more than 100 miles from the courthouse, Bloomberg reports.

"There is absolutely no overriding need for live testimony here," Pfizer's lawyers contend. U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson's order applies to Read and two other Pfizer executives, all of whom have testified in videotaped depositions. Excerpts from those videos will be played at trial, Pfizer noted in its appeal.

In J&J's case, Gorsky had already been deposed as well. The plaintiffs' lawyers argued that, as chief of the company's Janssen unit at the time when Risperdal was heavily marketed, Gorsky was close to the action--and should be compelled to take the stand. The judge in that case didn't buy the argument; soon after, J&J ($JNJ) settled, mooting any potential appeal.

Lawyers for the Chantix plaintiffs--the family of Mark Alan Whitely, who committed suicide--are relying on a similar argument. They say Read "is a crucial witness in the Chantix story, and any inconvenience is outweighed by the benefit of allowing the jury to evaluate his testimony in person."

The Whitely case is the first of some 2,500 Chantix liability suits now pending in Alabama, where they were consolidated under one federal court, Bloomberg reports. The suits claim that Chantix causes psychiatric problems that led some patients to attempt or commit suicide. They also claim that Pfizer knew Chantix might increase the risk of suicide, but didn't warn patients adequately. Pfizer denies both allegations.

Chantix's FDA-approved labeling has mentioned reports of suicidal thoughts since 2006. In 2009, FDA asked Pfizer to add a "black box" warning of Chantix's links to psychiatric side effects, including suicidal thoughts and attempts. Pfizer is conducting a trial examining the risk of psychiatric effects in Chantix users.

- read the Bloomberg piece

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