THE TIMES TELLS IT STRAIGHT
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, March 28, 2004 -- If the mass media are evolving into an oligarchy of corporate self-interest, somebody forgot to tell the Los Angeles Times this week, as it exposed misconduct by Ford Motor Co. and by major drug manufacturers.
In one story, the Times shows how pharmaceutical companies managed to keep dangerous phenylpropanolamine-containing cold remedies and diet pills on the shelves in spite of safety warnings. The other story skewers Ford's legal tactics in defending itself over injury cases.
These stories (in the March 28 Sunday edition) show what journalism is supposed to be. In so doing, they educate us as to some of the reality behind products liability litigation.
"Ford Stonewalls on Evidence, Judges Say," is the title of the lead story in the Business section. Author Myron Levin presents the story of how Ford has defended itself in product liability cases involving its vehicles. It describes how Ford repeatedly withheld evidence, even as it misled plaintiffs about the existence of crucial data or the lack thereof. The story quotes caustic comments by judges who heard cases against Ford. "It almost borders on the criminal," said one judge, regarding Ford's suppression of evidence that it knew about the instability of its 15-passenger vans.
The story explains that a Ford test driver "had rolled a van while driving a slalom course at about 40 miles per hour." It continues, "He testified that he had been told not to file a report on the incident - and that the instruction came from a Ford engineer who already had testified that no rollovers took place."
The story quotes judges as referring to Ford's conduct as "Totally reprehensible," "Disgusting," "Blatantly lied," and "Almost borders on the criminal."
This is strong stuff. There are several messages, mostly implicit: There really are some legitimate product liability cases where people have been killed or permanently injured due to the negligence of major corporations, that corporations should have known better and done better, that corporations are capable of abusing the legal system blatantly, and that justice for the wounded and the dead is a slow process.
Disclosure: Several years ago, I sued Ford in Small Claims Court over defective paint on my car. I was awarded a monetary judgment which Ford paid.
The big story full of pathos, heartbreak and outrage begins on the front page. Written by Kevin Sack and Alicia Mundy, "A Dose of Denial" describes how major pharmaceutical companies maneuvered to keep over-the-counter cold remedies and weight loss aids containing phenylpropanolamine (PPA) on the shelves in spite of evidence that this compound is capable of causing hemorrhagic strokes, particularly in women.
Unusual for newspaper journalism, the article gives a concise description of what and how PPA works, including its ability to cause blood vessel constriction and an increase in the force of the heartbeat, and how this may contribute to strokes even in young people. The story tells of two women, one 37 and the other only 15 who suffered bleeding in their brains and have been terribly disabled ever since.
One was a healthy teenager who now can barely function, speaks only haltingly, but manages to communicate her sad frustration to the reporter. The other has continuing disabilities including severe vision loss and needs to post a list in the bathroom reminding herself to brush her teeth and to flush the toilet.
Concerns that PPA could be dangerous existed as early as 1982, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned at that time. The story explains that in response to rising concerns during the 1990s, drug makers proposed and funded a study carried out at Yale University. As described, "A landmark study - sponsored by the drug industry itself - concluded in October 1999 that the use of PPA was associated with an increased risk of that deadliest form of stroke."
The story goes on to describe how the drug industry managed to keep its products on the shelves for additional months that proved critical for additional victims.
Recently obtained internal company documents show that rather than alerting the public during cold season, drug makers launched a yearlong campaign to keep the results quiet and stall government regulation. by the time the FDA acted, 13 months and hundreds of strokes later, the companies had reformulated their brand names with little interruption in sales. The market for PPA has been estimated at $500 million to $1 billion annually.
The article explains how the drug companies defended themselves: by attacking the study that they themselves had set up and funded, by attacking the researchers who did the study, and by attacking the methodology that they had agreed to at the outset. Ludicrous attacks on the messenger is apparently not confined to the political sphere.
In its 3 pages of chronology, analysis and evaluation, the story makes clear the cynical insensitivity of the drug makers to the damage PPA-containing drugs did.
The major contribution of stories such as these is more implicit than explicit. Neither story editorializes on this inescapable conclusion: The attempt by corporate sponsored propagandists to trivialize all products liability litigation, as they do so well via the internet and talk radio, is debunked by the histories detailed in these stories. People are badly hurt and even killed by machines and drugs manufactured in full realization that they are dangerous. Some corporations do this on the basis that they can pay a few legal judgments for the occasional death or paralysis and still make money.
The Los Angeles Times and its writers have demonstrated the right stuff this week. I commend them.