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Lincoln Journal Star
BY MARGARET REIST / Lincoln Journal Star
Russell Johnson, a 54-year-old Nebraska native who spent much of his life in O’Neill, survived cancer surgery two years ago and was talking about retiring, maybe moving to South Dakota.
And then one summer day, without warning, he left the job he’d had for 28 years, went home for lunch and shot himself, according to family members.
“It was a shock to everybody,” said his son Bowde Johnson of Ainsworth. “It left us speechless, basically.”
Family members knew he’d been depressed, something his ex-wife Bonnie Johnson says stemmed from the aftereffects of prostate surgery.
And they knew he’d started taking the antidepressant Zoloft.
What Bowde Johnson says he didn’t know until after his father’s death were the looming concerns about the drug’s side effects, concerns it could cause suicidal or violent tendencies.
Some time later, he saw a newspaper advertisement from a Lincoln attorney’s office offering to evaluate claims stemming from the use of such drugs.
Earlier this month, with the help of that law firm, Bowde Johnson filed a lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court against Pfizer Inc., manufacturer of Zoloft.
The lawsuit claims Pfizer was negligent because it didn’t properly test the drug for its propensity to cause suicide or violence and for failing to warn the public and medical professionals about the side effects. It asks for an unspecified amount of general damages and funeral costs of $2,464.
Lawyers from both firms representing Johnson declined comment.
Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins said medical data from the 14 years Zoloft has been on the market show cases like this have no merit.
Millions of people have successfully taken the drug, he said.
“Generally speaking, I can say the most reliable medical data available continues to show it is safe, effective and an important treatment for depression.’’
Similar lawsuits are pending across the country against Pfizer and other companies that make similar antidepressants.
Robert Brava-Partain, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm Baum Hedlund, said his firm has filed about a dozen Zoloft suicide cases and he knows of about a dozen other Zoloft cases filed by other firms. Baum Hedlund is not involved in Johnson’s case.
Most of the Zoloft cases are being litigated in federal court and are pending, Brava-Partain said.
In a few cases, judges have sided with the drug companies, saying they aren’t liable because the Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs. Most courts have rejected that argument, he said.
One of the first Zoloft trials is scheduled to begin in three weeks in Texas, Brava-Partain said. A trial would be significant, he said, in light of the recent jury verdict in a case against Merck and Co. Last week, a Texas jury awarded $253.4 million to the widow of a man who took Vioxx, a drug prescribed to arthritis sufferers.
Merck had stopped selling Vioxx last September after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes for patients taking it for at least 18 months. That triggered thousands of lawsuits against the company.
In antidepressant cases, the hope is drug companies will start warning customers and doctors of the risk of increased suicidal behavior, Brava-Partain said. No one is arguing the drugs should be taken off the market, he said.
“These drug companies are realizing, I hope, that they can’t hide this information from doctors and the public,’’ Brava-Partain said.
The FDA is studying the issue and in March 2004 required the manufacturers of such antidepressants to issue a “black box’’ warning to pediatric patients, Brava-Partain said. The FDA is studying suicidal tendencies in adult patients who take such drugs and in June issued a public health advisory warning of the possibility of increased suicidal behavior, especially early in treatment.
Pfizer has no problem with the idea doctors should closely monitor patients prescribed the drug, Haskins said, noting that depression itself can cause people to become suicidal.
According to the Nebraska lawsuit, Johnson was prescribed the drug on July 29, 2003, less than three weeks before he committed suicide
Bonnie Johnson, who remained close with her ex-husband years after they divorced and who is a nurse, said she was familiar with the antidepressant and was concerned Russell had started taking it.
“He didn’t even get through the samples (and start taking the actual prescription) when he committed suicide,” she said.
When he was prescribed the drug, Bonnie said she was in Wyoming looking into placement options for Travis, their oldest son, who is autistic. She and Russell talked daily on the phone.
“I was anxious to get back because I wanted him off the drug,” she said.
Just hours before he killed himself, Johnson called a friend and asked him to fix one of his vehicles, said Gordon Johnson, Russell’s father. He left no note and Gordon said he can’t understand why his son took his own life. He had no money problems, his cancer surgery was successful and he had no enemies, his father said. His family said he’d been cancer-free for four months.
“There’s no reason in the world for him to do this,” Gordon Johnson said.
Bowde Johnson, who graduated from Chadron State College after his father’s death because he’d made a promise to his dad, doesn’t know what will happen with the lawsuit.
But he does know how devastating his father’s death has been to his whole family.
“On a good day you think about it 100 times,” he said. “On a bad day, you think about it 1,000 times.”
Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or email@example.com.