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South Bend Tribune
April 13, 2003
By MATTHEW S. GALBRAITH
Tribune Staff Writer SOUTH BEND – An unprovoked act of violence apparently left two men dead in LaPorte more than two years ago. Police could not explain what triggered it.
A lawsuit filed recently in federal court offers a possible answer as to why Vernal Ash first shot and killed Craig Jenks, then turned the gun on himself on Aug. 18, 2000, in a LaPorte neighborhood. The suit blames Ash’s destructive behavior on his taking Paxil, an anti-depressant medication, and seeks damages from GlaxoSmithKline, the drug maker, for allegedly failing to warn about Paxil’s potentially adverse side effects. The company, based in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, has been the target of several lawsuits in recent years. Plaintiffs generally have alleged that the drug produces anxiety, nightmares and hallucinations in some users. These people could become agitated and possibly homicidal or suicidal, they argue.
In 2001, for example, a federal jury in Wyoming ordered GlaxoSmithKline to pay $6.8 million to the relatives of a 60-year-old man who shot and killed his wife, daughter, granddaughter and then himself.David Jones, the attorney for Ash’s widow and estate, said the purpose of the local suit is to determine what parties could be legally responsible for the fatal shootings. The suit actually came about after Jenks’ widow sued Mrs. Ash for damages. Mrs. Ash approached Jones about defending her and told him about her husband’s actions, which he described as “out of the blue.” He learned from her that her husband had been taking Paxil. “That’s pretty peculiar in and of itself. So we’re asking as lawyers, ‘Why would someone do this?’ ” Jones said of how it came to be viewed as a possible contributor. The company’s position is that Paxil helps millions of people with depression, a dangerous condition that GlaxoSmithKline says is responsible for violent tendencies.”We believe Paxil is a safe and effective medicine. It has been extremely helpful to patients,” company spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne said in a telephone interview.
The Wyoming case, she added, was resolved with a confidential settlement after the jury award. Under the settlement, the company agreed not to pursue an appeal.Search for answers”We really don’t know what caused it. We may never know,” a LaPorte police detective was quoted as saying the day after Ash, 60, described as friendly and easygoing, seemed to snap. As the 22-year-old Jenks and a friend worked on motorcycles across the alley, Ash went outside his house on Rose Street and fired a single shot from a handgun, striking Jenks in the head, police said. The friend reported that Ash yelled out, “Are you ready to die?” before firing. Ash returned inside and shot himself in the head, police said. His body was found after police surrounded and then entered the house about an hour after the shooting. Jenks was pronounced brain dead the next morning, and he died a short time later. Legal action first was taken by Dawn Jenks, who reportedly had married Craig Jenks just four months before he was killed. Dawn Jenks sued Ash’s widow, Billie, and his estate in LaPorte Circuit Court.
The suit claimed Billie Ash was negligent in not removing a gun from her husband or having him committed or arrested after seeing him acting “irrationally” earlier on the day of the shooting. Steve Bom, the attorney for Dawn Jenks, said there’s information that Vernal Ash had chased his wife around with a gun. She went to a son’s house and eventually to police, he said, but it was too late.”Vern Ash was having a bad day and shot and killed the husband of my client,” Bom said. He filed suit to advance the argument that a homeowner’s insurance policy should cover certain damages.”We didn’t have any idea that Vern Ash had been taking Paxil,” he said. That information came to light after Billie Ash filed a third-party complaint against GlaxoSmithKline as part of the case. In effect, she’s saying the company may be liable for the damages sought by Jenks.Her suit contends GlaxoSmithKline did not fully research or properly test the mind-altering chemical compound and failed to warn the public about adverse side effects. She seeks punitive damages.The company hired South Bend attorney Patrick Murphy, who recently gained a LaPorte County judge’s approval to separate Billie Ash’s complaint from the Jenks suit and move it to federal court.The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert L. Miller Jr.
Two sides of Paxil
Paxil was introduced in the United States in 1992 as a treatment for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and general anxiety disorder. Millions of patients have been treated by Paxil worldwide, according to Rhyne. Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft were viewed as a new generation of miracle drugs a decade ago. They dramatically improved the lives of depression sufferers and, by lessening the stigma of the disease, led to more people seeking treatment.The drugs are classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which affect the brain’s ability to reabsorb serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to affect mood, sleep and appetite.Critics, however, claimed that physicians were overprescribing the anti-depressants, even for the angst that most everyone experiences at one time or another.Some lawyers had another view of the wonder drugs. They believed the SSRIs had a dangerous side for some people and that the pharmaceutical makers hid this from the public as their sales soared.In the Wyoming case, attorneys for the plaintiffs presented internal company documents showing studies where a small number of people became agitated or violent after taking the medicine.
The court victory didn’t open the legal floodgates. A class action suit filed later in Los Angeles was denied class status, scattering 35 plaintiffs to their own devices. Rhyne, the spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded from a 1991 study there were no causal links between the use of anti-depressants and suicide.”There’s no valid scientific research or literature that Paxil causes violent or aggressive or suicidal thoughts or acts,” she said.The drug’s warning label recommends gradually decreasing use and monitoring for symptoms that include abnormal dreams and a feeling of electric shock sensations.Jones, the attorney for Billie Ash, said GlaxoSmithKline is aware from the Wyoming case that a jury can find fault with the company. But he added that past cases are not good indicators of future cases.”Every case is different. It’s very difficult to predict (an outcome) based on other cases,” he said.Staff writer Matthew S. Galbraith:firstname.lastname@example.org(574) 235-6359