Pfizer prevails in first court test of Zoloft birth-defect claims

Pfizer ($PFE) racked up an important win in the first trial over Zoloft's alleged links to birth defects. A St. Louis jury decided on Friday that the drug giant isn't liable for congenital abnormalities in a boy whose mother took Zoloft during her pregnancy.

The family of 11-year-old Logyn Pesante had sought more than $2.7 million in compensation for his multiple health problems, including heart defects, which were treated with three expensive surgeries.

Pesante's was the first case to go to trial among more than 1,000 similar lawsuits pending in federal and state courts. Pfizer maintains that it has kept the FDA and the public abreast of safety problems associated with Zoloft. The drug's official label cautions against its use during pregnancy, the company says.

Winning this first trial gives Pfizer a stronger position when dealing with plaintiffs in the other cases. "It's always important to set the tone when you are facing thousands of cases," University of Richmond legal scholar Carl Tobias told Bloomberg. "The first win casts doubt on the strength of these Zoloft cases."

In the St. Louis case, lawyers failed to prove that Zoloft caused Pesante's congenital health problems. "While we have great sympathy for families affected by birth defects, this verdict affirms that Zoloft did not cause the conditions alleged in this case," Neha Wadhwa, a Pfizer spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.

Pesante's lawyers had introduced a Pfizer report stating that Zoloft posed risks of a variety of health problems, including structural defects in the heart and digestive system, and congenital heart and lung disease. But Pfizer says a "comprehensive review" of medical literature didn't support a link between Zoloft and birth defects.

In 2010, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) paid more than $1 billion to settle hundreds of lawsuits alleging its antidepressant drug Paxil increased the risk of birth defects. Paxil and Zoloft are two drugs in the class of depression-fighters known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

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