That’s how I feel about having breast cancer. “Mastectomy and reconstruction: $48,000. Chemo: $26,000. Radiation: $18,000. Living with a life-threatening disease for the rest of my life: priceless.” Priceless, as in there’s no way on earth to put a monetary value on having cancer. The experience is just something money can’t buy—or, in this case, can’t buy you out of.
So why do people try? Why do people sue drug companies and get multi-million dollar awards for “compensatory and punitive damages”? Wyeth, one of America’s drug giants, is currently being sued by just over 5,000 women with breast cancer (or their families). They’re claiming that their cancer was caused by Premarin or Prempro, two hormone replacement therapy drugs manufactured and marketed by Wyeth, and prescribed to millions of women for many years to lessen the uncomfortable side effects of menopause.
The judgments in these cases have started to trickle in, and some of them are truly mind-boggling. An initial ruling in a Nevada case awarded three women a total of $134 million; that award has just been slashed to $58 million, which is what put the case in the news. Wyeth officials lauded the decision, naturally; the women’s lawyer, of course, decried it. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
I’d argue that it doesn’t matter who’s “right” or “wrong.” An AP account of the case offers this assessment from Judge Robert Perry, presiding justice in the case: “There was substantial evidence from which the jury could conclude that Wyeth knew that its product could cause breast cancer, that it intentionally failed to conduct adequate tests, that it financed and manipulated scientific studies and sponsored articles in professional and scientific journals that deliberately minimized the risk of cancer while over-promoting certain benefits and citing others which it knew to be unsubstantiated.” So yeah, it certainly sounds like Wyeth may have placed its business interests above the health and safety of the women using its product. And that’s simply reprehensible, sleazy… an example of American business at its very worst. If it’s true, then Wyeth was WRONG.
But are the women walking away with $20 million RIGHT? I understand punitive damages; Wyeth paying money out of its pocket punishes the company for what it did (in the hopes that it won’t repeat the process with another drug). But I’m not sure that the money should go to the women who sued. Their lawyer said, “But for taking this drug, they would not have gotten breast cancer.” Well, I beg to differ. Millions of women took Premarin and Prempro, and DIDN’T get breast cancer. Millions of others never took those drugs, and DID get breast cancer. Breast cancer, despite a growing stable of known risk factors, is still random, a roll of the dice. Better Wyeth should give those millions to Komen for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, or to fund breast cancer research at any number of facilities. We’re all sisters in survival; let’s agree to put the money to its best use.