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The Daily Oakland Press
November 3, 2003
A photo of Daren S. Alli is displayed on his tombstone. Alli killed himself and his widow, Michele Alli is suing Eli Lilly and Co. claiming the prescription drug he was taking led to his death.
INDEPENDENCE TWP. – Michele Alli was devastated, she was shocked and she was angry. The man she loved and the father of their two children – her husband, Daren – had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It couldn’t be. “Those damn drugs,” she said at the time.
But there was no cocaine, no heroin, no marijuana in Daren Alli’s system. He wasn’t an addict or drug abuser. He was a decorated sergeant in the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, a leader of the department’s SWAT team.
His wife, a registered nurse, contends it was the prescription antidepressant Prozac that prompted Daren to shoot himself in the head May 23, 2001.
What made the suicide even more surprising was that Daren had taken the prescribed dosage for only three days to treat a mild case of depression. The drug made him feel jittery, so he flushed the rest down the toilet, Michele said.
Four days later, he was dead.
“It didn’t make any sense,” she said of the death. “We had no financial or marital problems. The only thing that made sense was those drugs.
“No one even knew he was depressed. He was playing hockey, he was working. He had a mild case of depression. He was functioning fine. It doesn’t add up.”
But it made perfect sense to Houston attorney Andy Vickery.
Vickery has knocked heads with Eli Lilly and Co., the Indianapolis-based drug giant and manufacturer of Prozac, suing the company more than 20 times, alleging the drug has violent side effects.
On Oct. 2, Vickery filed a products liability and wrongful death claim in behalf of Michele and her children against Lilly in an Indianapolis court.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind,” Vickery said. “This case fits the classic pattern. I have their people on videotape saying this fits the pattern. Daren’s case fits like a glove.”
A healthy relationship
Daren and Michele had been sweethearts since a chance meeting on their jobs around Halloween in 1989.
Michele, 21, was a registered nurse, and Daren, six years her senior, was a deputy. They met when he was guarding a prisoner in the hospital.
“He was a super nice guy,” Michele said. “Honest, great smile. He lit up the room when he walked in.”
Within two years, they were married, and it wasn’t long before they had a family, a boy and a girl. Daren became a member, then a co-captain of the department’s Special Response Team or SWAT team.
The couple had moved into their dream home in Independence Township.
“Daren called it his castle. … We were the best of friends,” Michele said.
A couple of times a month, the couple would get a baby sitter so they could spend an evening together, rekindling the romance in their marriage.
“We didn’t want to lose the connection to each other,” Michele said. “We could talk to each other about anything. We called each other ‘sweetie.’ It was a good, healthy relationship.”
‘I’ll call you when
I wake up’
In March 2001, Daren wasn’t sure what the problem was, but he knew that something was wrong. It wasn’t his job. He loved being a cop. It wasn’t his family. He loved them all. He told Michele of his concern.
“He would tell me he didn’t feel right,” she said.
He underwent a physical, which found him to be in good health. He also scheduled an appointment with a therapist.
The diagnosis was mild depression. In May, the family doctor suggested that Prozac would be an appropriate treatment and asked Daren if he wanted the antidepressant. Daren agreed to take the pills and left the office with some 20 milligram samples of the drug.
For three days – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – he took the prescribed dosage.
But he didn’t like the way it made him feel. He quit taking the drug.
“I’m feeling nervous and jittery,” Michele recalled him saying.
They flushed the pills down the toilet, hoping that would end the problem.
Tuesday night – May 22, 2001 – Daren had a restless night. Despite that, and the fact he was working the afternoon shift, Daren and Michele planned to have lunch together – if he got up on time.
“I’ll call you when I wake up,” he said.
They never had lunch together again.
“We know he didn’t make this decision,” Michele said. “I know Daren. He loved life too much. He lived for his family. That’s not how he would solve a problem. He would face problems head-on. He would not do that.”
His boss was of the same opinion.
“It makes you wonder,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. “What was the cause? What was it that I didn’t see? What could have driven him to that very desperate state? He was a good looking young man with a beautiful wife and children. He had a good future, and then something like this.”
The Texan and
Andy Vickery loves a good fight.
A Houston trial lawyer, Vickery, 55, has made a living for himself taking on big companies.
He and another lawyer formed JusticeSeekers.com, a Web site to inform the uninitiated about the skills the lawyers possess and the giants they’ve slain – or at least fought.
He and drug giants, such as Lilly, have become familiar adversaries, with Vickery taking them on 30 or 40 times -he can’t recall which.
At least a dozen times, Vickery has sued Lilly over Prozac, but the results of the cases are less clear. He has never beaten them in open court, nor does he stand alone. Only a handful of the more than 300 Prozac lawsuits have ever gone to trial, according to one published report.
“To my knowledge, Lilly has never been ordered by a court to pay anyone any money,” Vickery said.
But that doesn’t account for cases that have been settled quietly – and confidentially – out of court. A claim that was filed in Georgia, asserting that the patient was unable to metabolize the drug, was settled out of court this spring, Vickery said.
“Lilly has an aphorism: ‘It’s the disease, not the drug.’ What they have done successfully is they have managed to deflect public opinion from the question of the drug to the question of depression,” Vickery said.
Lilly spokeswoman Jennifer Yoder said the company had settled cases in the past to avoid prolonged court battles.
“Those are business decisions,” she said.
Back home in Indiana
But Daren’s case may be among Vickery’s most challenging – not from a factual basis but because he must convince an Indiana judge the case was properly filed there instead of Michigan.
Michigan law requires Vickery to prove that Lilly lied to the gover
nment when it sought Food and Drug Administration approval for the drug. Vickery admits his biggest hurdle is keeping the case alive in Indiana.
“Of all the states in the country, Michigan has the most Draconian statute,” Vickery said. “That’s why the widow of this highly decorated police officer has to go to Indiana to get some relief. And there she will have a fight to get a court to apply Indiana law.”
Vickery concedes that suing Lilly in its own back yard could also present a problem.
“Common sense suggests that it does,” Vickery said. “It’s bad enough trying to steal a grizzly bear cub from the mama in the woods. It’s just suicide to walk into her cave.
“But I have been resigned to the fact that most people want to do the right thing. You just have to trust them. I believe. I have a high hope the judge and the jury will follow the law.”
In the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 2, Vickery contends Lilly is negligent because it allegedly failed to screen and inform potential users of the dangers of the drug.
Lilly allegedly knew for years that a segment of the population was unable to metabolize Prozac in their systems, yet the company did not warn those users, Vickery said.
“Screening would have saved Daren’s life. A warning to the doctor would have saved Daren’s life,” Vickery said.
Not surprisingly, Lilly has a far different take on the drug that has been used by more than 40 million people and was named by Fortune Magazine in 1999 as one of the “Products of the Century.”
Yoder, the Lilly spokeswoman, said an FDA panel concluded in 1991 there was no credible evidence of a link between antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, and suicidal or violent behavior.
“Not only is there no credible scientific proof establishing a causal link between Prozac and suicide, but, to the contrary, scientific evidence shows that Prozac and other antidepressant medications appear to reduce these behaviors,” Yoder said.
“Depression is a serious, life-threatening medical condition characterized by a variety of symptoms. Suicidal thinking and suicidal acts are symptoms of depression. They are caused by the disease, not by the medicines used to treat it.”
The drug – the chemical name is fluoxetine hydrochloride – was the top seller and moneymaker for the company for at least five years beginning in 1988, Yoder said.
“Prozac has been found to be safe and efficacious,” she said.
“Its safety and efficacy is well-studied, well-documented and well-established. It has been taken by more than 40 million people and significantly improved millions of patients’ lives.”
Wait and see
Vickery estimates it may take a judge from three to six months to decide if the case should stay where it is. If the ruling is favorable, Vickery predicted, the case will be settled. If it isn’t, Vickery’s options are limited but not exhausted.
And Vickery has never argued that Prozac should be banned from the market.
“I have never said, nor has my main expert said, these drugs are bad for all people,” Vickery said.
“They need to be prescribed by the right doctor to the right patient with the proper flow of information. If a person is beyond 30 days (use), as far as I know, you’re probably OK. If you start feeling weird, you need to tell your doctor.
“It may well be true that warnings would scare people away. But it’s not the prerogative of Eli Lilly to sacrifice the Daren Allis of the world in favor of someone else.”
But win or lose in court, Michele is satisfied that she has done all she can for her children and her husband.
She and her children attend counseling sessions regularly and have the support of their extended family and friends.
“I won’t let people forget him,” Michele said. “I will go to the end of the earth for him. I feel I’m strong enough and it’s the right thing to do. His kids will be proud that he made a difference to another family and might save someone else.
“I will feel proud that I did everything I could. I’m not obsessed with it, but it’s important. Daren would have done anything for me. It’s important.”