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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > David Mason Takes on Eli Lilly

Over 2000 Britons, most of them middle-aged or elderly, trusted the Eli Lilly drug company in Indianapolis and survived to regret it. Starting around eight years ago, they took a drug called Opren (named. Oraflex in the U.S.) to allegedly combat pain and inflammation from their arthritis. The agony for many of them ranged from damaged kidneys and livers to a terrible skin sensitivity (rashes, peeling skin, acute itchiness) to light, especially sunlight. An estimated one hundred died.

The Opren survivors sued Eli Lilly and in the following years, the medieval miserliness of British law closed in on them. Although the evidence linking Opren with such harmful side effects was decisive and although Eli Lilly pleaded guilty to a rare Reagan criminal prosecution in 1985, the British courts continued their institutional and legal bias for perpetrators and against victims.

Lawyers for the victims informed their clients a few weeks ago that the most Eli Lilly would offer was about 2.75 million British pounds for 1300 injured plaintiffs. This comes down to an average of slightly more than $3000 per victim for years of pain and suffering, past and future. By comparison, in 1986, the chief executive officer of Eli Lilly, Richard D. Hood, made more in one day than the average settlement figure and he experienced no suffering, other than possibly his conscience.

This paltry settlement was accompanied by the realization that to take Eli Lilly through trial would cost millions of

dollars that none of the victims possessed. In England, the contingent fee, whereby victims’ attorneys get paid only if they win is outlawed.

Moreover, the draconian terms of this settlement include a gag order on all victims never to speak or write publicly about their complaint and an agreement by the plaintiffs’ lawyers never to take another Opren case against Lilly.

Now, change the geography and come back to the U.S.A. In 1985, a Georgia jury awarded a $6 million verdict against Lilly in a wrongful death again due to Opren (or Oraflex). The case was settled prior to appeal for $4 million. So, in just one case, almost as much money was obtained from the drug company as it is expected to pay to 1300 innocent Britons. Other afflicted Americans received out of court settlements that dwarf the absurd pin money offered our English cousins across the Atlantic.

Enter David Mason of London. An art dealer by trade, Mason and his wife were the parents of a Thalidomide daughter, born without limbs due to the effect of a sedative called Thalidomide which her mother took while pregnant. This drug’s manufacturer, the giant Distillers’ company, originally wanted to pay the hundreds of Thalidomide children about 3.5 million pounds. In 1974 Mason raised an international level of outrage and boycott against Distillers products (including some well-known alcoholic brands). The result was a settlement that reached over 32 million pounds. I was pleased to play a role in securing this necessary economic security for these valiant children who are now in their late Twenties.

Late last year, Mason began reading about the Opren settlement and decided to do something about it. He launched another campaign to focus public revulsion and public shunning of Eli Lilly and its products. He wants Lilly to voluntarily establish a multi-million pound trust fund for the Opren victims. He thinks Lilly’s 1987 profits of over $600 million could well afford this small display of reparations.

The insurance industry and their allied corporate lobbyists have been swarming over state legislatures and the Congress during the past three years to demand a reduction in the legal rights and remedies which American law accords victims of manufacturers and their hazardous products — from automobiles to drugs to toxic chemicals. They like to point to the British system as the way to slide down.

In the coming months the executives at Eli Lilly will find their company’s arrogant and cruel pressure on the Opren victims becoming Exhibit One as the way not to go. They will need to decide whether the previous Dow Chemical — napalm or Nestle -­infant formula campaigns will repeat themselves upon Eli Lilly, with all the loss of public confidence that ensues; or alternatively whether to adopt the moral and responsible course to more adequately compensate the pain, suffering and expenses of the Opren 2000.