Stella Case No. 001, Originally Published: 4 September 2002
When someone is truly harmed, sometimes a lawsuit is necessary to ensure that there is compensation for the harm done. But when greedy people jump on the bandwagon just for the money, they can cause true harm of their own.
The drug Propulsid (cisapride) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993 for treatment of a certain digestive disorder. But by the end of 1999, the drug was implicated in 341 cases of heart rhythm abnormalities, which have allegedly led to 80 deaths. Its manufacturer pulled Propulsid off the market — and lawsuits quickly followed.
Hazel Norton of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, read about the problems with Propulsid and stopped taking it. She decided to sue because, she said, “I might get a couple of thousand dollars.” She apparently suffered no heart rhythm abnormalities from the drug. “Actually, I didn’t get hurt by Propulsid,” Norton admits.
Norton’s doctor, Kirk Kooyer, came to the Mississippi Delta to help poor people and, he says, to answer a Christian calling. His wife is also a doctor — a pediatrician and internist. Dr. Kooyer has “made an incredible difference in the health of women and children” of the region, said Dr. Chris Glick of the Mississippi-based National Perinatal Association. “He could have had a very well-to-do practice in Michigan but instead he chose to work in the poorest counties in Mississippi as a gift from his heart.”
Dr. Kooyer and his wife are among the few doctors on staff at the Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital, where virtually all the patients are below the poverty level. Well, they were on staff: the doctor couple left Mississippi for North Dakota because, they say, they’re tired of being sued. Dr. Kooyer’s wife Maria Weller was the only pediatrician in a two-county area. Both have been sued before, and they claim the suits are without merit.
Only two doctors are left practicing at the hospital. “What’s going to be hard is to find someone to replace [Dr. Kooyer] because whoever comes will face the same thing,” says hospital administrator Winfred Wilkinson. “It’s the patients who’ll suffer.” The Mississippi State Medical Association says about 100 doctors left the state in 2002 alone.
Lawsuits are such a problem in Mississippi that a special session of the legislature was called to address the issue and try to stem the flow of doctors out of the state — they admit they are fleeing lawsuits and high malpractice insurance premiums. What do local lawyers say about it? Malpractice insurance premiums are rising “because of the economy and September 11,” claims trial lawyer Dennis Sweet of Jackson, presumably with a straight face. “It doesn’t have anything to do with lawsuits.”
Dr. Kooyer no doubt disagrees. His leaving made Hazel Norton “kind of upset,” she says. “I do not want him leaving because of all the suits. If we run off all the doctors, what are the people gonna do?” Too late, lady. Even though she instructed her attorney to drop Dr. Kooyer from her lawsuit, he had already decided to move. Her lawyer had named him in the suit so the case would be tried in Mississippi, where juries are known to be generous about transferring money from “rich” insurance companies to poor people. Of course, the insurance companies then raise doctors’ premiums to pay for the largesse, which puts more pressure on the doctors to leave.
Such lawsuits “are just the symptoms of a state in which key people have lost their ethical integrity,” Dr. Kooyer says. When an overweight patient asked him for the diet drug fen-phen, he refused to give it to her, telling her in his opinion the drug combination was deadly. She went to another doctor for the drugs — and later got a $125,000 settlement from the fen-phen class action lawsuit. The patient showed him the settlement check, he said. “I told you about the damage, and you decided to get the drugs anyway,” he told her. “It doesn’t seem fair for you to be accepting that check.”
“Where has the shame gone?” Dr. Kooyer wonders. He’s too polite to say the obvious: the shame has been sold by people like Hazel Norton for “a few thousand dollars.” She admits she was not harmed by Propulsid, but she sued anyway to wrestle a piece of the pie from the people who were harmed. As a result of her greed, the poverty-stricken people around her will suffer from a lack of medical care. Maybe now Norton knows what a side-effect is.
- “Heartburn Drug Withdrawn; Propulsid Linked to Heart Rhythm Abnormalities,” WebMD, 23 March 2000.
- “Tort Reform: Just What the Doctor Ordered?” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 29 July 2002.
The drug had already been removed from the market in 2000. The class action is over: Johnson & Johnson, which owns the drug’s manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceutica, agreed to pay out “up to $90 million to settle claims” of the 16,000 patients affected, including 300 who died. Those who didn’t participate in the class action could opt to sue separately.
Source: “J&J Agrees to Propulsid Settlement of $90 Million,” Los Angeles Times, 6 February 2004
Paul in California: “The extraordinary number of lawsuits, of which such a large amount are frivolous and completely abuse the legal system, is maddening! The Stella Awards at least let us laugh and, at the same time, be enlightened by them. Thank you for bringing this problem into an entertaining and critical light.”
Mike in New York: “You have no idea how on target you are when you mention that juries in some states are quick to transfer wealth from the insurance companies to ‘victims’. A number of years ago, when I lived in Kansas City, I was the foreman of a jury hearing a personal injury case. We were specifically instructed at the start of the trial that we should not consider the source of the money for the award (if any) and that we should just hear the case on its merits. The plaintiff had no case! We all agreed on that, but some of the jurors still insisted on awarding a large settlement just because it would come from the insurance companies and not the defendant, despite our original instructions! Luckily I and the other jurors refused to go along, but I wonder just how often the award is made just because only the insurance companies will have to pay. Don’t these people know where the money comes from? I bet they complain each time their premiums go up, too!”
Suz in Illinois: “Ms. Norton and her fellow greedy Mississippians are biting their own selves in the rear end here. Sounds like poverty is not their biggest problem, and just may be a result of their biggest problem; a huge lack of common sense. Actions have repercussions, and one must first think of those repercussions before one takes the action.”
Bill in Canada disagreed: “I must comment that perhaps you are off the mark somewhat in pointing a finger at Hazel Norton as one of the root causes of these asinine lawsuits. I would suggest that the culprit(s) are more likely the lawyers who agree to take these kinds of cases. If every member of the legal fraternity were ethical there would never be this kind of frivolous lawsuit in the first place as they would tell the Hazel Nortons of the world to take a hike as soon as they heard the reason for the suit.”
Well, Bill, in fact I didn’t point at Ms Norton as a “root cause” of “these asinine lawsuits,” I merely discussed one case. She didn’t get dragged into court by a lawyer kicking and screaming, she heard about the case in the media and decided to get in on the action because — in her words — she thought “I might get a couple of thousand dollars” even though she admits she was not harmed by the defendants in her suit.
Can lawyers do more to discourage such cases? Absolutely! But we must stop rolling over and accepting people suing solely to extort money from deep pockets, especially when they were not harmed whatsoever by anyone. Hazel Norton soundly deserved her “Stella”. Appeal denied.
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
If you wonder why drugs are so expensive, there’s part of the answer for you. Before you ask “What about price gouging?”, I covered that too, in my podcast: “Give Me a Shot at It. I’m an Engineer” (streaming and transcript available on that page).
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