Independence Police Department Settles Wrongful Death Suit from Police Chase

As a Missouri car accident attorney, I was interested in a recent story in the Kansas City Star about a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from a police chase that killed an innocent bystander. The parents of Christopher Cooper, 17, settled their lawsuit against the Independence (MO) Police Department and Medevac MidAmerica Inc., an emergency response provider, for $275,000. This is an important case because, as I discussed last week, it emphasizes that police officers need to exercise care when they respond to emergencies, lest they cause danger and damage rather than protecting the public from it.
In the accident that led to the Independence wrongful death lawsuit, an Independence police officer was pursuing a driver who was fleeing the scene of a collision with another car. Christopher Cooper was crossing the street on a bicycle when he was struck by that driver, Wilfredo J. Pujols Jr. of Independence. Pujols is a cousin to St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. He pleaded guilty in December 2008 to second-degree murder, resisting arrest and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the sentencing, Jackson County Circuit Judge Jack Grate described Pujols’s actions as “horrific,” and acknowledged the Cooper family’s “incalculable” pain. But to the Coopers, the criminal case against Pujols did not resolve the problem of what appeared to be a pattern of police chases in Independence that risked public safety. In the fall of 2007, there were three deaths resulting from police chases in Independence within a ten-day period. Two of those killed were the people who were fleeing from the police, and the third was Christopher.
In their wrongful death lawsuit, Christopher’s parents alleged that the Independence police shared the blame for Christopher Cooper’s death because they had not followed the city’s pursuit policy. They also alleged that, along with other emergency personnel, police failed to properly assess his injuries and made demeaning remarks at the scene of the accident. As a St. Louis car wreck lawyer, I could see the demeaning remarks that these emergency workers allegedly made as evidence that they weren’t taking the situation very seriously, even though a young man’s life was at stake, and ultimately was lost. The police could have chosen to deal with Pujols differently. Rather than chasing him when he fled from the scene of the first accident he caused, they could have alerted other officers to catch up him further down the road, or arrested him at his house later on. Instead, they chose what had already been shown, within the last few days, to be a dangerous course.

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Senator Calls for EOBRs in All Buses and Trucks to ‘Protect All Drivers on the Roads’

As a St. Louis tractor-trailer crash lawyer, I was interested in a news item about the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s meeting with trucking industry agency leaders to discuss their oversight of motor carrier transportation. Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, chairman of the subcommittee on surface transportation, called for “universal installation” of electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) in trucks and buses to improve public safety. As I’ve discussed here before, EOBRs would make it harder for truck drivers to get away with driving for more hours than they are legally allowed to. Hours of Service (HOS) regulations specify how long drivers may work before they are required to rest in order to reduce the likelihood that fatigued drivers will cause accidents that hurt or kill people.
Lautenberg pressed Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne Ferro to explain why only 1.3% of all trucking companies are being required to use EOBRs. As I wrote several weeks ago, the FMCSA is going to require trucking companies with a history of HOS rule-breaking to install EOBRs in 2012. Ferro told Lautenberg that the agency is working on a broader rule requiring EOBRs, but that it would take even longer to get that rule in place than it will to enact the narrower one taking effect in 2012. Meanwhile, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association vice president Todd Spencer insists that EOBRs have nothing to do with public safety. EOBRs “can’t tell if a driver is sleepy, they can’t tell if a driver needs to rest, they can’t tell whether a driver is off duty or whether he’s physically handling 44,000 pounds of cargo. They are no more reliable than the paper logs that they would replace,” he said.
Of course, records produced by EOBRs are much less likely to be falsified, which is the whole point of using them. The existing paper logs often are riddled with errors and falsehoods, because drivers want to make more money by getting to their destinations faster, or are pressured by their employers to do so. That sometimes means not taking mandated rest periods, which means they arrive over-tired and sometimes unsafe. Truck drivers are currently allowed to drive 77 hours per week, which is almost twice as long as most people work. In contrast, airline pilots are allowed to fly only 30 hours per week, which is undoubtedly one of the factors making airplanes one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. Fatigued truck drivers who fell asleep at the wheel, along with drivers who suffered heart attacks while driving, caused 12% of fatal crashes in which truck drivers were at fault, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study.
Truck drivers and the companies that employ them have a legal responsibility to comply with HOS rules and to recognize when drivers are too fatigued to continue driving — even if HOS rules would let them. They just shouldn’t be driving at all if they are too tired to be alert and safe on the roads. Eighteen-wheelers require greater stopping distance than passenger cars do because they are so much heavier. That means that a truck driver needs to be awake enough to pay careful attention to traffic conditions at all times — otherwise, he or she could cause a horrific crash. As a Missouri semi truck accident lawyer, I certainly don’t want to see any more wrecks like the one that killed three people and injured fourteen here in St. Louis in July of 2008, or last year’s tragedy in eastern Oklahoma, which caused nine fatalities.

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Avandia Study May End Early Due to High Risk of Patient Heart Attack

In February, I wrote about the Senate’s report on their investigation of the diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone) and allegedly unethical behavior by the drug’s manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline. As a dangerous prescription drug lawyer, I keep a close watch when drug manufacturers face allegations of unethical behavior, as does GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Avandia. Now, a Reuters report reveals that the FDA is considering ending a study of Avandia’s safety earlier than planned because subjecting study participants to this drug’s substantial risk of causing heart attack could be unethical.
A 2007 study by Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that taking Avandia increased a patient’s heart attack risk by 64%. This is a frightening risk for Type II diabetes patients already at high risk for heart attack. University of Washington researcher Bruce M. Psaty, MD, PhD, said, “There is little evidence for using this drug…. The purpose of reducing blood sugar is to prevent cardiovascular events. Now the possibility of cardiovascular benefit associated with Avandia appears remote — indeed, it appears linked to harm.” Avandia already carries a black box warning, the strongest kind of warning from the FDA, about patients’ increased risk of heart failure. Two FDA drug safety reviewers recommended pulling the drug from the U.S. market in 2008, and in late March 2010, Saudi Arabia’s Food and Drug Authority suspended Avandia for six months.
Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline maintains that the evidence does not establish that Avandia increases the risk of heart attack, citing its own long-term study, which of course may not be completely objective. The February Senate report alleged that GlaxoSmithKline also tried to quash information damaging to Avandia by intimidating doctors and downplaying evidence of its dangers. Yet the Senate investigation found that privately, GlaxoSmithKline’s own scientists acknowledged that Dr. Nissen’s study was sound. As a defective prescription drug attorney, I think it’s important that patients be made aware of scientists’ and regulators’ concerns about Avandia.
By refusing to acknowledge the concerns of the FDA and the Senate, GlaxoSmithKline may be trying to protect its sales of Avandia, which reached $2.8 billion in 2006. But GlaxoSmithKline may pay a big price for doing so. Drug manufacturers can be held legally responsible for the harmful effects of their drugs if they fail to warn the public and government regulators about them. The FDA’s decision to consider ending the current Avandia study because of the heart attack risk, along with the Saudia Arabian FDA’s suspension of Avandia, suggests that everyone is convinced of Avandia’s risks — but GlaxoSmithKline simply won’t acknowledge them until it’s forced to. This is a dangerous game to play with patients’ health and lives.

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FDA Reprimands Drug Companies for Misrepresenting Drugs’ Safety

According to pharmaceutical industry journal PharmaLive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rebuked GlaxoSmithKline for false advertising about its chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) drug Arzerra (ofatumumab). In a letter to the company, the FDA says that an advertisement for Arzerra in the Journal of Clinical Oncology fails to mention any of the risks associated with the drug or the limitations on the drug’s use. Because of these omissions, the FDA says that the ad implies that Arzerra is safer and more effective than evidence says it is. As a dangerous drugs attorney, I took note of this article because numerous drug companies have been discovered making similar intentional violations, exposing millions of patients to serious risks.
The FDA also upbraided GlaxoSmithKline for failing to submit its Journal of Clinical Oncology ad for the FDA’s review before publication. Because Arzerra was within 120 days of being approved by the FDA for marketing, its promotional materials were supposed to be vetted by the FDA. GlaxoSmithKline had framed the advertisement as a “disease awareness” ad, which purports to inform people about a disease without mentioning a particular drug, so no disclosure of drug side effects would have been required. But the FDA said that the ad’s allusions to Arzerra were transparent, and that the ad should have described the adverse reactions to Arzerra that patients could suffer. For example, Arzerra can increase the risk of an often fatal viral infection of the brain, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, which resembles a speeded-up version of multiple sclerosis. Arzerra can also be harmful to patients who have a history of hepatitis.
Drug manufacturers have a legal responsibility to warn doctors and patients of the risks associated with their drugs. As a defective prescription drug attorney, I am glad that the FDA is taking GlaxoSmithKline to task for trying to sidestep its responsibility to inform the public of all relevant safety information about Arzerra. A number of drug manufacturers have been held liable in lawsuits over false advertising of their drugs’ effectiveness and safety. Patients with serious illnesses like CLL have enough to worry about without also having to research faulty claims about their medications, or worry about undisclosed safety information. Unfortunately, as the FDA’s letter to GlaxoSmithKline shows, drug manufacturers often place their own financial interests ahead of patients’ safety.

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Illinois State Police Officer Gets Probation for Car Wreck That Killed Two Girls

As a southern Illinois car accident lawyer, I took note of a recent news item in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concerning an Illinois state trooper who pleaded guilty to two counts each of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving. Matt Mitchell, 31, was responding to a call when he lost control of his patrol car while driving at 126 mph. Mitchell was also sending and receiving emails 2.5 seconds before the crash, and had been talking on his cell phone prior to that. Jessica Uhl, 18, and Kelli Uhl, 13, of Collinsville, were driving home from a photo shoot when Mitchell’s patrol car plowed into them and set their car ablaze. The young women died at the scene. Christine Marler, who was pregnant at the time, and Kelly Marler, both of Fayetteville, Ark., were injured in a third car.
Mitchell was on duty at the time of the crash, and is now the first Missouri state trooper ever to be convicted of reckless homicide for an on-duty wreck. By pleading guilty, Mitchell avoided a trial that could have gotten him up to five years of prison time for the four charges. Instead, Mitchell will be on probation for 30 months. The Illinois State Police put Mitchell on paid leave during the case and will likely fire him. The agency has also set new policies to rein in the speed at which officers can drive, require them to use hands-free phones, and keep the patrol car’s video recorder on whenever the car’s emergency lights are in use. The Uhl family is pursuing a separate wrongful death lawsuit against both Mitchell and the state of Illinois. A detail of that case nearly held up Mitchell’s plea deal, but has since been smoothed out. A hearing in the civil case was scheduled for April 19.
As a St. Louis car crash lawyer, I am glad that the State Police is making changes to ensure public safety. Police officers are given greater privileges than other drivers — the right to speed and break some other traffic laws — in order to respond to emergencies. But those privileges come with greater responsibility to drive carefully. Mitchell’s driving was clearly careless and reckless, even if he was responding to an emergency. His speed may or may not have been appropriate for the situation, but it’s unlikely that he needed to use his phone or email while responding. And even people who don’t support restrictions on cell phone use while driving can probably agree that it is not safe to use a phone at 127 mph. As a result of that recklessness, two young women are dead and Mitchell’s career as a law enforcement officer is likely over.

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Trucker in Massive Highway 40 Accident Pleads Guilty to Causing Three Deaths

As a St. Louis semi truck accident attorney, I’ve written several posts here about the fatal trucking accident that took place on Highway 40 here in St. Louis in July of 2008. Fourteen people were injured and three were killed when a tractor-trailer driven by Jeffrey R. Knight, 51, of Muscle Shoals, AL, plowed into stopped traffic at the beginning of rush hour. Knight said he had had been reaching for his cell phone and allegedly failed to notice traffic conditions in front of him. He was charged about a year ago with three counts of involuntary manslaughter. Now, almost two years after the crash, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Knight has pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and was allowed to go free. He was sentenced to one year for each death, to be served concurrently, and freed because of credit for the 371 days he had already spent in jail.
The crash killed Lydia Miller, 55, of Canton, Alvin Mast, 88, of Kahoka, and Charles “Keith” Cason, 55, of Caseyville. Miller and Mast were members of the Amish community who were heading to a funeral with the help of a hired driver; Cason was a copier salesman. Four of Cason’s relatives attended Knight’s sentencing, and prosecutors say the one-year sentence was settled on with the agreement of victims’ families. One of the 14 people injured was Mark Tiburzi, who was severely brain damaged by the crash and is unable to walk or talk. His wife, Cheryl Tiburzi of St. Peters, said she didn’t know the sentencing was happening and didn’t know what to think. Mark Tiburzi now lives in a nursing home where he can get the 24-hour care he now needs. The Tiburzis were awarded $18 million in a lawsuit against Knight and his former trucking company, Holmes Transport, Inc., but Cheryl Tiburzi says she doesn’t expect to see any of that money. Other families had filed their own claims against Knight and Holmes Transport.
As a Missouri big rig accident lawyer, I know that avoidable accidents involving driver distraction and inattention like this one are unfortunately quite common. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study attributes 29% of fatal crashes in which truck drivers were at fault to driver distraction and inattention. This is true of smaller passenger cars as well; in fact, the federal Department of Transportation has made distracted driving a centerpiece of its traffic safety efforts over the past year. Sadly, it is all too common for any error by a truck driver to have terrible consequences for drivers of smaller vehicles, which cannot protect people from the tremendous force that large, heavy tractor-trailers wield in a crash. As a truck driver, Knight had a legal responsibility to live up to a higher standard than drivers of passenger cars do, because his mistakes had much worse repercussions.

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Off-Duty Police Officer and Bar Settle Wrongful Death Lawsuit after Drunk Driving Crash

A police officer and a restaurant in Sunset Hills have settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the families of four people killed by a drunk driving crash on March 21, 2009. The officer, Christine L. Miller, is accused of driving drunk on the wrong side of the road while she was off duty, crashing into a car full of five students originally from India. The crash killed Anusha Anumolu, 23, of Charleston, Ill.; Satya Subhakar Chinta, 25, of Aurora, Ill.; Anita Lakshmi Veerapaneni, 23, of Charleston; and Priya Muppavarapu, 22, of Charleston. Also injured was the driver, 28-year-old Nitesh Adusumilli of Balwin, who recently returned to work. In addition to the lawsuit, Miller is also facing criminal charges including four counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of second-degree assault.
The settlement means Miller and O’Leary’s Restaurant & Bar have agreed to $331,375 to each family. Most of the money will come from O’Leary’s, whose employees allegedly served alcohol to an intoxicated Miller and allowed her to drive afterwards. Miller then turned the wrong way down Dougherty Ferry Road in Sunset Hills and smashing into the passenger side of the students’ Honda, which was turning right. This settlement ends claims from the families of the four students who were killed, but Adusumilli has filed a separate personal injury claim as well, and that claim continues. Miller’s next court date in her criminal case is April 22. She is on unpaid suspension from the Sunset Hills Police Department.
As a St. Louis car crash attorney, I wish these families the best as they continue to grieve and heal after this tragedy. Drunken driving is inexcusable for anyone, of course, but alcohol-serving establishments in Missouri also have a responsibility not to serve alcohol to a minor or to a “visibly intoxicated person.” This was part of the argument made in the lawsuit against Miller and O’Leary’s, which argued that both parties were negligent. According to police, Miller’s blood-alcohol content was 0.169%, more than double the legal limit of 0.08%, three hours after the crash. The suit also claimed that the restaurant’s employees knew Miller was drunk, kept serving her alcohol despite her slurred speech and unsteady gait, and did not stop her from driving or call her a taxi when she was ready to leave. If true, these allegations clearly show negligence by the restaurant, as well as by Miller.

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Study Links Epilepsy and Depression Drugs to Suicidal Thoughts and Attempts

Patients being treated for epilepsy, depression, migraine, chronic pain, bipolar disorder, and other conditions may need to be vigilant about suicide-related side effects of their treatment. A recent report on CNN.com details the results of a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It found that taking antiseizure drugs to treat epilepsy and other conditions roughly doubles the risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, compared with other drugs in the same class. The medications in question are the antiseizure and nerve pain relief drug gabapentin (Neurontin), the antiseizure and bipolar disorder drug lamotrigine (Lamictal), and the antiseizure drugs oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), tiagabine (Gabitril), and the seizure, bipolar disorder, and migraine treatment valproate (Depakote). I see a lot of people who have experienced unexpected negative effects from prescription drugs in my work as a defective prescription drug attorney, and I am glad that news outlets like CNN are making the public aware of these dangers.
In 2008, the U.S Food and Drug found that people who took any of eleven anticonvulsants, as these drugs are called, approximately doubled the risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. The risk is less than half of one percent — about one in 230 patients will have suicidal behavior or thoughts. Experts say patients need to be aware of this risk, so that they’ll be more likely to notice if they are that one in 230. The FDA required these drugs to carry a warning label about this risk, but did not require a “black box” warning, the most serious kind of warning.
The new study published in JAMA looked at people taking thirteen anticonvulsants over five years and tracked suicide attempts, suicides and violent deaths. It found that five of the drugs increased the risk of suicidal behavior compared with topiramate (Topamax), a widely prescribed and versatile drug in the same class. Aware that many of the anticonvulsants they looked at were used to treat mental illnesses, the authors of the study accounted for the increased risk of suicide because of mental illness as they analyzed the data. They still found that “the risk was derived from the specific drug that the patient was taking and not their underlying conditions,” said Dr. Elisabetta Patorno of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the lead author of the study. Dr. Andres Kanner of Rush Medical College in Chicago, who did not work on the study, said that patients taking anticonvulsants should tell their doctors if they or a family member have a history of mental illness. Patients should not stop taking the drugs without discussing the issue with their doctors, and they should tell their doctors if they feel depressed or have thoughts of suicide.
As a dangerous prescription drug lawyer, I am glad that patients are gaining access to better information about the drugs that they take, but I am concerned that this information is not coming from the drug manufacturers. The risk of suicide is a well known side effect of certain antidepressants, and it’s not unlikely that the manufacturers could have been aware of it before the JAMA study came out. In fact, the drugmaker Pfizer just settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the widow of a man who committed suicide while taking Neurontin. Pfizer still faces many similar lawsuits and also pleaded guilty to criminal charges in 2004 and agreed to pay $430 million because of how it promoted Neurontin. Neurontin had been one of the company’s best selling drugs before it lost patent protection and generic versions became available. These circumstances suggest that some drug manufacturers might have worried that warning people about the increased risk of suicide would harm their profits.

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Woman Paralyzed by Truck Accident Cannot Find Doctor Who Will Accept Medicaid

Last month, I wrote about an accident in which a young southern Illinois couple suffered a devastating trucking accident on their wedding night. Their car collided with a grain truck that pulled out in front of them, leaving Kelli Wisneski, 20, paralyzed from the chest down. Her new husband, Chad Wisneski, 20, suffered seven shoulder fractures in the accident. The Belleville News-Democrat published a follow-up article about the Wisneskis on April 11 discussing Kelli Wisneski’s problems getting access to good medical care. On top of the debilitating health problems that she now suffers because of the accident, Kelli cannot find a doctor to help her stay current on the eighteen prescription medications she needs. As a southern Illinois semi truck crash attorney, I believe this article shows how important money can be for victims of very serious accidents.
According to the article, the eighteen primary care doctors Kelli has tried to see have rejected her as a patient, in part because she relies on Medicaid for her care. Medicaid rules require patients like her to use a primary care doctor to obtain prescriptions. But the Wisneskis have found it nearly impossible to find a doctor for Kelli, in part because doctors don’t want to deal with the paperwork that her Medicaid health coverage entails, or accept its payments, which are low compared with private insurance. They also don’t want to handle her case because it’s so complicated. As a result, Kelli actually ran out of medicines she had been legally prescribed and can pay for. That includes a blood pressure pill that keeps her from passing out due to her paralysis, as well as pain medication that gives her relief from constant back and shoulder pain and lets her sleep. Generous members of their southern Illinois community have helped, but they had not found a long-term solution as of the article’s publication.
Accidents involving large trucks often involve serious harm, as I know all too well from my work as a St. Louis tractor-trailer accident lawyer. Very few people confronted with a devastating injury think first about money, but it’s vitally important for helping people with new disabilities ensure that they’ll be taken care of. The article notes that Kelli spent months in the hospital and in a rehabilitation clinic. Now, Kelli’s mother and Chad share the 24-hour-a-day job of caring for Kelli, who needs help with eating, bathing, and other basic functions. All of this costs the family money and time, including time they could spend at work. In cases like this, someone like Kelli and her family may be able to sue an at-fault truck driver, and the company that employed the driver, to pay for medical bills, caregiving, a lifetime of lost wages and other costs. They can also recover compensation for living with a permanent disability, physical pain, emotional suffering and other losses.

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Drug Manufacturer Admits It Ignored Duty to Warn FDA of Its Defective Products

As a dangerous prescription drug attorney, I was interested in this story about a St. Louis drug manufacturer’s guilty plea to two felony counts of criminal fraud. Ethex Corp, a wholly owned subsidiary of KV Pharmaceutical, admitted that it had failed to report to the FDA that it had been producing generic prescription medications that contained up to double the dose they should have had. Company leaders admit that they knew about the problem in the spring of 2008, but kept quiet about most of the drugs until an FDA order shut down production in January of 2009. They blame the problem on bad managers who have since been pushed out. Despite 15 months of no production or sales, KV faces at least 30 lawsuits, 15 of which are wrongful death claims.
In May 2008, pharmacists in California and Canada discovered that morphine sulfate tablets produced by Ethex were much larger than they should have been. Overdoses of morphine, an opiate, can cause a person to stop breathing and go into a coma. KV Pharmaceuticals recalled the defective morphine tablets the next month. However, they decided not to do anything in response to reports of similarly oversized tablets of other drugs like propafenone, a medication for irregular heartbeat, and dextroamphetamine sulfate, a component of Adderall, the attention-deficit disorder drug. Propafenone overdose can lead to coma and seizures, and dextroamphetamine sulfate overdose can, in extreme cases, lead to amphetamine psychosis, in which a person experiences hallucinations and goes for long periods of time without sleep.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Lay wrote in court papers that a KV executive knew about these problems and decided that since there was low probability that more oversize tablets would be found, the company should do nothing, even though other employees objected to this approach. This executive told employees to avoid discussing the problem in writing as much as possible, and to limit the number of people who would find out about it. In other words, the executive orchestrated a cover-up. KV employees said that they were encouraged regularly to falsify records so that the FDA would think that KV was in compliance with FDA standards on chemical tests and cleanliness of the equipment used to produce the drugs.
In the end, the company’s emphasis on production over safety has already severely affected its bottom line — industry watchers say KV could be bankrupt within the year. It is no surprise to me, as a drug defect attorney, KV is facing so many lawsuits over defects in its drugs. Over 200 more pending claims have not yet made it to court, and 26 of those involve a patient’s death. CVS Pharmacies is also suing KV for $100 million for allegedly breaking a supply contract.

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