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Law > Politics and Prejudices

Fighting for democracy here

 

Published 12/14/2005

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Let’s suppose your doctor prescribes some spiffy new drug for your pimples, say, or your aching back. Unfortunately, it turns out to have some minor side effect, like it makes you totally blind. Or kills you.

Whoops. Guess the drug company didn’t experiment enough on those rabbits. Or maybe it didn’t work the same on people. It’s always something. But, hey, you can sue the pharmaceutical firm for what it did to you or yours, right?

Sure you can — in every state in the union except one. That’s right. Mississip— uh, Michigan! That’s right. Big pharmaceutical companies have total immunity in this state — as long as their drugs have been approved by the FDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

You know the FDA. They have very high standards. Except when they screw up, as with Vioxx. That’s a medication the drug giant Merck sold for arthritis pain. Unfortunately, it also seems to cause heart attacks. Whoops again.

Merck is conceding nothing, you understand. But it pulled Vioxx off the market more than a year ago. Not soon enough to help Florida seafood salesman Dicky Irvin, who caught the big one first. Recently, a jury in that state heard the evidence and awarded his widow millions.

However, Lansing’s Leslie Richter isn’t likely to be as lucky. Her husband, who she says was in excellent shape except for arthritis, took Vioxx and had a major stroke in 2003. That “left him unable to move, able to communicate with me and his children only through blinking his eyes.

“Forty-four days later he died.”

Unfortunately for her, they lived in Michigan. They can’t sue, and she’ll never see a dime. We can thank Gov. John Engler for that. Ten years ago, he rammed through a law that prevents us from suing any pharmaceutical company whose drug has been approved by the FDA.

Wonder why he now has a cushy, high-paying job as head of the National Association of Manufacturers? Earlier this year, the Democrats introduced bills to correct this outrage. The GOP leadership sat on them. But now a courageous Republican has come forward. State Rep. Ed Gaffney, of Grosse Pointe Woods, has introduced a bill to end this injustice.

He was shocked when he learned Michigan wouldn’t allow damaged residents to sue drug companies. “This is tort reform run amok,” Gaffney says.

He has introduced his own legislation. Drug companies would be presumed innocent, but if you could prove their product had harmed you, you could successfully sue. Yet so far, he can’t get the time of day from House Speaker Craig DeRoche, a Novi Republican who’s young enough to be his son.

“I’m sure this would pass if we can ever get it to the floor for a vote,” Gaffney says. Republicans have only a 58-51 majority, and a number of them feel as Gaffney does. As far as I can tell, all the Democrats want the change.

So why wouldn’t Craig DeRoche want to please the public? Hard to say, but my guess is that this is another side effect of term limits. He can only stay in the House six years, and will need a job after that.

Maybe a job like Engler’s. Sometimes big drug companies hire ex-lawmakers as “governmental affairs coordinators.” Who do you suppose the speaker is more apt to worry about pleasing — the guys who have big money, or those who very soon will no longer be able to vote for him?

Here’s what you can do: Put the pressure on. Bug your legislator, or DeRoche, or better yet, both of them. Tell them to bring this damn thing to a vote.

Yes, I know there are frivolous lawsuits. I have no patience with morons who pour hot coffee in their crotch and then want to sue McDonald’s. But our highly paid legislators can figure out how to write legislation to prevent silly suits.

Last week, a lady from a village not far from Flint called my radio program. Her husband needed a liver transplant, thanks to some drug that had backfired. She didn’t know where they were going to get the money, and were reconciled to losing their house. Do we want to be a state that cares more about people, or do we want to be people that the nation’s big pharmaceutical companies can use as guinea pigs, since they can’t be sued?

You decide, comrades.

 

In the matter of Geoffrey Fieger: Last month was a trying one for the man the media always calls the state’s most flamboyant lawyer. Following a bizarre attack by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, the feds raided Fieger’s Southfield office. My first thought was that Osama bin Laden must be in there. After all, despite four years of tough talk from the nation’s highest-ranking AWOL National Guardsman, we still can’t seem to find him.

But instead, the feds seem to be trying to get Fieger over allegations that he forced his lawyers to donate to John Edwards’ presidential campaign, and then said he would reimburse them. The feds also said their investigation was not related to Cox’s own flawed pursuit of Fieger.

Right. I personally know employees of Fieger’s firm well enough to tell when they think their boss is being a jerk. This time is different; they’re outraged, and see this as totally political.

The feds’ only apparent source is a junior lawyer who went to the government after the Fieger firm fired him. Not quite the standard of credibility.

Frankly, it’s not surprising that the attorneys in that office gave money to Edwards. John Edwards is one of them — a medical malpractice trial lawyer. No wonder he would be enthusiastically supported by his peers.

There does seem to be a legitimate state issue stemming from what may be improper campaign contributions in 2004. Fieger apparently paid $453,000 for TV ads attacking Stephen Markman, a state Supreme Court justice running for re-election. Fieger then waited longer than required before admitting he paid for the ads. Actually, his greatest sin may have been stupidity. There never was any chance Markman could be defeated; he won by a landslide, and so Geoffrey poured almost half a mil down the drain.

Trouble is, this is now muddied up with Cox’s sexual affair and his allegation that Fieger was trying to blackmail him over it. The best thing for all concerned would be to assess a fine, and for the Geoffster to shut up and pay it, after which everyone moves on to greater atrocities, or something.

 

More than a footnote: Eugene McCarthy’s death Saturday was overshadowed by the death of comedian Richard Pryor. That’s probably not quite as bad as giving Pee-Wee Herman more attention than Albert Einstein, but close. Anyone old enough to know that Iraq is a bad remake of a bad movie called Vietnam knows how important Gene McCarthy was.

Back in when we were mired in ’Nam, McCarthy risked his entire political career to not only oppose the war, but to run against the powerful incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. That was far harder and riskier to do than it would be now. They thought he would get 10 percent of the vote in the first primary.

But hordes of neatly dressed “Clean for Gene” students descended on New Hampshire and he almost won. Weeks later, LBJ dropped out of the race. McCarthy didn’t win the nomination, and it isn’t clear if he had the temperament to be president. But he changed history, and showed you can make a difference.

He deserves to be better remembered today. And we need to find his modern counterpart, fast.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or michiganradio.org).

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