On November 18, 2013, a Philadelphia jury awarded over $10 million to a family whose son was born with a cleft palate and other birth defects after being exposed to the drug Topamax during his mother’s pregnancy. More specifically, in Gurley, et al. v. Ortho-McNeil Janssen Pharmaceutical, Haley Powell was prescribed Topamax for treatment of epilepsy and migraines. More than a year after she began taking the drug, she became pregnant and continued to take it throughout her pregnancy after being told by doctors that the drug was safe.
After their son, now five years old, was born with birth defects that will require at least five surgeries before turning age 21, the South Carolina couple sued the drug manufacturer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (formerly Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceutical) in a Pennsylvania state court. The couple alleged that the company failed to warn the Powells doctor that Topamax taken during pregnancy could cause birth defects, despite the company allegedly being aware of the serious risks as early as 1997. Even though the judge threw out most of plaintiffs’ claims against the drug manufacturer, including strict liability-design defect, negligent design, gross negligence and express breach of warranty, and also barred a bid for punitive damages, the jury ultimately found that Janssen negligently failed to warn the patient and the doctor of the risks associated with Topamax when used by patients during pregnancy and awarded the family over $10 million in damages.
The Gurley case was the second of approximately 134 cases pending in Philadelphia relating to Topamax tried in court. Notably, it is also the second largest verdict in recent months against Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson. In October 2013, a Philadelphia jury in Czimmer v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. issued a $4.02 million verdict in favor of April Czimmer, a Virginia woman who took Topamax from August 2006 through February 2007 to treat migraines. Czimmer subsequently gave birth to a boy born with a cleft lip in September 2007. She alleged that she would not have taken the drug for more than six months had she known the risks associated with it. The jury ultimately found that Janssen was negligent when it failed to warn healthcare providers of the extent of the risk of birth defects from Topamax, and awarded approximately $562,000 in future health care costs to Czimmer’s son and an estimated $3.4 million for pain and suffering.