By Jessica Dye
(Reuters) - Pfizer Inc scored a key victory Friday when it was cleared of liability in the first U.S. trial involving claims that its antidepressant Zoloft can cause birth defects in children born to women who take the drug while pregnant.
Plaintiff Kristyn Pesante claimed that Pfizer failed to warn that using Zoloft during pregnancy could cause birth defects and sought damages after her son was born with a rare, serious congenital heart problem.
Following a week-long trial in St. Louis, Missouri, jurors deliberated briefly before clearing Pfizer of liability, according to a Pfizer spokeswoman Neha Wadhwa. Pesante had sought both compensatory and punitive damages, accusing Pfizer of downplaying Zoloft's risks in order to boost sales.
Hundreds of lawsuits saying Zoloft can lead to cardiac and other birth defects have been filed in U.S. state and federal courts. While not binding on the other cases, Friday's verdict is "particularly significant" because Pesante's was the first case selected by plaintiffs for trial and featured much of the same medical evidence and theories underpinning other cases across the country, Wadhwa said.
Pesante's 2012 lawsuit said that Pfizer touted Zoloft as a treatment for depression in pregnant women that had a lower risk of side effects than similar drugs. She said she took the drug during her first trimester and was not aware at the time of the risks.
But Pfizer has disputed any scientific link between Zoloft and birth defects and said that its position is supported by individual medical groups including the American Heart Association, American Psychiatric Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
A lawyer for plaintiffs did not immediately return requests for comment.
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Zoloft is part of a widely prescribed group of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
In 2010, GlaxoSmithKline Plc paid an undisclosed amount of money to settle some U.S. lawsuits linking another SSRI, Paxil, to birth defects.
The next Zoloft trial is scheduled to take place later this year in state court in Philadelphia.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye in New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Chris Reese, Ted Botha and Lisa Shumaker)