Family Awarded $63M: 'Extremely Rare' Verdict Made After Johnson & Johnson's Ibuprofen Causes Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis

By Jason Van Hoven on February 14, 2013 10:18 AM EST

Johnson & Johnson
A court has found Johnson & Johnson liable more than once for its drugs' side effects. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A Massachusetts family was awarded $63 million by a Plymouth Superior Court jury on Wednesday after 16-year-old Samantha T. Reckis suffered a severe, life-threatening skin disease called toxic epidermal necrolysis 10 years ago because of Children's Motrin, a version of ibuprofen made by Johnson & Johnson, according to reports.

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Reckis was only seven when she was given the Children's Motrin by her parents to alleviate a fever that began the day after Thanksgiving in 2003 as the Boston Herald notes. But days after, she started suffering the necrolysis, a rare side effect, which caused her to lose 90 percent of her skin and go blind. Over the past decade, she also suffered from blisters, fatigue, brain damage that involved short-term memory loss and a debilitated respiratory system that has left her with just 20 percent lung capacity and unable to walk more than 150 yards without exhaustion.

The family awarded $63 million filed their lawsuit in January 2007, claiming that Reckis was blinded by Children's Motrin and alleging that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary division that makes the medicine, McNeil Consumer & Speciality Pharmaceuticals, failed to warn consumers that it could have life-threatening side effects on the over-the-counter versions. The trial, which started five weeks ago, ended on Wednesday when the Plymouth Superior Court jury awarded $50 million in compensatory damages to Reckis and $6.5 million to each of her parents.

The decision must still be reviewed by the trial judge, but if upheld, the total verdict against Johnson & Johnson and McNeil Consumer & Speciality Pharmaceuticals with interest could ultimately be worth $109 million.

Reckis had previously taken Motrin without suffering any side effects. So, the resulting toxic epidermal necrolysis -- a potentially fatal skin disease that inflames the mucus membranes and eyes and is marked by a rash that burns off the outer layer of skin -- startled physicians. It inflamed the 16-year-old's throat, mouth, eyes, esophagus, intestinal tract, respiratory system and reproductive system, which forced physicians to put her in a coma.

Hundreds of people contract the necrolysis each year in the United States. Nearly one-third die and many other are either blinded or suffer other serious conditions. Known as TEN, it is the most severe form of a more common skin disorder, called Stevens-Johnson syndrome as the Boston Globe points out.

"It's like having your skin burned off of you," said one of the family's attorneys, Bradley M. Henry of Boston law firm Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow. "Imagine your worst sunburn times 1,000. It's an absolutely devastating condition."

McNeil, which is based in New Brunswick, N.J., said it disagreed with the verdict and was considering additional legal options.

"The Reckis family has suffered a tragedy, and we sympathize deeply with them," it said in a statement.

However, the firm still sought to defend Children's Motrin, saying that it's "labeled appropriately" and, when used as directed, is "a safe and effective treatment option for minor aches and pains and fever."

"A number of medicines, including ibuprofen, have been associated with allergic reactions and as noted on the label, consumers should stop using medications and immediately contact a healthcare professional if they have an allergic reaction," it said.

This isn't the first time that a court has found Johnson & Johnson liable, but would likely be the largest on record if upheld. In a similar case in Pennsylvania, a girl was awarded $10 million in 2011 after a negative reaction to Children's Motrin caused her to lose 84 percent of her skin, suffer brain damage and go blind. A California court awarded a $48 million judgment in Los Angeles in September 2011 and a Philadelphia court awarded a $10 million judgment in July 2011.

Eric J. Parker, a personal injury lawyer with Parker Scheer in Boston who is not involved in the suit, told the Globe that it's extremely rare for a jury in Massachusetts to award such a large amount of money for a case involving a single patient or family.

"By Massachusetts standards, this is an exceptionally high verdict in a personal injury case," Parker said. "It's a spectacular victory for the plaintiffs."

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