One of the worst workplace shootings in U.S. history is in the news again – and you may never have even heard of it. But the real story is behind the story as drug maker Eli Lilly has just been found guilty of fixing a jury deciding a landmark lawsuit against the popular anti-depressant Prozac – to the tune of $20 million in secret payments.
The details of the 30-year-old murder case, while horrendous, are not at issue. It has been well-established that an armed man killed himself on the scene after claiming the lives of eight people and injuring 12 others.
But survivors and families of one of the earliest shocking incidents of fire-powered workplace violence in the U.S. blamed the atrocity on a pharmaceutical company, alleging that the shooter was under the influence of Prozac, which drove him to commit homicidal actions that he would otherwise not have done. Prozac is manufactured by Eli Lilly.
The crime occurred at the Standard Gravure printing plant, located behind the Louisville Courier Journal office building in Kentucky where it was part of the newspaper operation.
Joseph Wesbecker (47) was a pressman who worked in the printing plant. He had been placed on long-term disability leave for severe mental illness.
On the morning of September 14, 1989, at the start of the workday, around 8:30 am, Wesbecker returned to Standard Gravure with a bag full of weapons that included an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle. For the next half-hour, Wesbecker fired more than 40 rounds at anyone he came across as he walked through the building. Then, he used a handgun to shoot himself fatally in the head.
Debloy Yetter has been a reporter for the Courier-Journal since 1984. In late 1989, Yetter was coming in from the employee parking lot into the office through the front door at about 8:30 am only to be met by another female employee who warned people trying to enter to stay away:
“She said there was a shooter inside the building and people were being shot.”
One month before his deadly assault on fellow employees at Standard Gravure, Wesbecker had started taking Prozac.
Prosecutors for the wronged parties sued Eli Lilly, the Big Pharma corporation that makes a mood-altering drug used to treat many mental health patients:
“In 1994, a fiercely litigated, 11-week trial took place in Louisville in which Wesbecker’s victims and their families said the Prozac he took helped incite his murderous rampage.”
In the autumn of 1994, 160 cases were pending in America against the drug Prozac, which was being widely dispensed as an anti-depressant. In 1994, Prozac constituted nearly one-third of all Lilly sales, raking in $1.7 billion.
The Fentress case, named for one of Wesbeker’s victims, was the first of those 160 lawsuits to go to court. It would set a precedent for every case against Prozac and Lilly to follow. The drugmaker was facing both a staggering loss of revenue and reputation.
The trial judge, the Honorable John W. Potter, had denied prosecutors the opportunity to present compelling evidence that showed Lilly had a history of failing to report the harmful side effects of another of their products, Oraflex, which had been recalled in 1982 as too dangerous, after being linked to four deaths.
Lilly executives testified under oath that their company had a sterling reputation for reporting product-related “adverse events,” as they called them. This statement allowed prosecutors to ask the judge again to allow into evidence the Oraflex information.
Judge Potter agreed. After a one-day recess, Paul Smith, the plaintiffs’ Chief Counsel, surprised everyone by stating that the prosecution would rest without presenting the critical Oraflex evidence. Judge Potter asked the lawyers if they had reached a settlement and was answered in the negative.
Three court days after Judge Potter ruled to allow the condemnatory Oraflex evidence, on December 12, the jury returned a verdict for Lilly.
Judge Potter thought that a secret deal must have been made illegally to protect Lilly’s interests. These suspicions were confirmed in his mind when the plaintiffs failed to appeal the court’s decision, the usual next step in this type of litigation.
Potter asked Deputy State Attorney General Ann Sheadel to investigate. After reviewing subpoenaed documents and questioning witnesses under oath, she reported in March 1997 that she had evidence of an unlawful deal so secret that it was never prepared formally. The evidence consisted only of a written summary of a spoken agreement:
“In exchange for the plaintiffs agreeing not to present the evidence of Lilly’s criminal conduct with Oraflex, Lilly had agreed to pay all plaintiffs, win or lose. Part of the agreement was that all of chief plaintiffs’ counsel Smith’s Prozac cases, including those in Indianapolis, were settled, and half his overall expenses paid by Lilly.”
Lilly’s strategy paid off. By December 1994, fewer than half of the pending 160 lawsuits remained.
Two unnamed victims of Wesbecker’s attack recently told the Courier-Journal that they “felt compelled to accept the money because they suffered egregious injuries that kept them from working again and they needed it to survive.”
We now know that the $20 million bribe – worth about $41 million in 2019 – was divided among the plaintiffs after they settled their lawyers’ fees. Lilly paid an additional $5 million to cover workers’ compensation claims.
The deal would have paid the plaintiffs an additional $15 million “if Prozac had been found 51%-100% liable for Wesbecker’s conduct.”
The conspiracies involved in the Fentress case stemmed from incidents that occurred 30 years ago. As Big Pharma companies such as Eli Lilly brag about how safe their products are and minimize the negative side effects, they continue to use their money, power, and influence to silence truth-tellers and carry on with business as usual.