PR-wise, Propofol had a rough week. Not only has the anesthetic been part of the Conrad Murray/Michael Jackson involuntary manslaughter trial, it’s been at the forefront of Nevada’s hepatitis C outbreak cases, one of which just came to a verdict—a big one.
Before we discuss numbers, the facts of the case: A handful of Nevadans contracted hepatitis C after getting colonoscopies. Right before the procedures, they were given Propofol made by Teva and distributed by Baxter. It came in large vials—vials large enough to be reused. Doing so was cheaper, but far more dangerous.
A jury just awarded one of these victims, 71-year-old Michael Washington, $14 million in compensatory damages and $90 million in punitive damages—$104 million total.
That’s a lot. Particularly for a septuagenarian. But that’s the whole point of punitive damages. Typically, in a civil lawsuit, lawyers try to put the plaintiff in the financial position they would have been in but for the defendant’s wrongs. But with punitive damages, we’re trying to punish the defendant. We’re trying to send a message: What you did wasn’t okay. And we hope that the message gets to those in similar positions. (In this case, other drug manufacturers and distributors.) Here, the message was simple: Greed at the expense of safety isn’t okay.
I suspect the message was received. I don’t think we’ll be seeing big bottles of Propofol any time soon, or big bottles of other potentially reusable medication, either. That said, I’ll bet you the verdict will be reduced on appeal.