In May 1979, Elizabeth Tenuto brought her five-month-old daughter, Diana, to a pediatrician in New York for her second dosage of an oral polio vaccine. A month later, Ms. Tenuto’s husband, Dominick, contracted polio, apparently by touching Diana’s stool while changing her diaper. Now, three decades after becoming permanently paralyzed, Mr. Tenuto has won a $22.3 million verdict in New York state court against Lederle Laboratories, the giant pharmaceutical company that manufactured the vaccine Orimune. It was alleged that the company negligently manufactured the vaccine and that it failed to adequately warn doctors of its dangers. The lawsuit brought by Mr. Tenuto and his wife, finally went to trial in February.
After closing arguments, Lederle offered $10 million to settle the case. Mr. Tenuto’s lawyers, who had incurred approximately $500,000 in expenses over the years, encouraged him to reject the offer. The jury deliberated for one day before awarding Mr. Tenuto $17.5 million for past and future pain and suffering, plus $5 million for lost earnings and medical and rehabilitation expenses. Following a series of corporate transactions, Lederle itself is now part of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which recently signed an agreement to be acquired by Pfizer.
As we all know, polio was officially eradicated from the Americas in 1994. However, litigation continues with regard to the risks posed by the oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, which was long the drug of choice in the campaign against the disease. This case was filed in 1981. Much of the case’s first two decades were consumed by motions, discovery and appeals, including a half dozen rulings in New York’s appellate courts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1980 and 1998 — at a time when more than 300 million doses of the vaccine were distributed — 144 people in the United States contracted polio via a vaccine, including 86 vaccine recipients and 51 “contact” recipients. In underdeveloped countries, the rates have been much higher. Several small outbreaks have forced entire communities to receive high-dose vaccinations. Since 2000, all U.S. vaccines administered have used inactivated viruses, reducing the risk of contact-associated polio to zero.
The jury found Lederle 100% liable for Mr. Tenuto’s condition. Much has changed for this man in the three decades between his diagnosis and the jury’s verdict. He aged from 31 to 61. He lost his job and, unable to work, spent more than 20 years volunteering at a hospital. His marriage broke up, and his ex-wife died. His three daughters are now adults — the youngest, Diana, recently turned 30. Mr. Tenuto is now a grandfather, twice over. It was a long, tough fight, but justice was finally done.
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