Two years after taking the over-the-counter sleeping aid L-tryptophan, schoolteacher Betsy DiRosa began suffering skin blotches, joint and muscle cramps, tingling in her arms and legs, even damage to her heart and lungs.
The symptoms remain with DiRosa and with thousands of other victims of L-tryptophan, which was lifted from shelves across the country in 1989 and is now the focal point of about 1,500 lawsuits brought by victims of the debilitating disease EMS, for which L-tryptophan is blamed.
This week, DiRosa, 42, became the first plaintiff in the nation to win a lawsuit against Showa Denko K. K., the Japanese manufacturer of the pill. But DiRosa and her attorney reacted with disappointment Wednesday, saying they had hoped for more than the jury’s award of slightly more than $1 million.
DiRosa had sought $144 million and ended up receiving less than the $1.5 million that had been offered in a settlement proposal by Showa Denko K. K. The jury faulted DiRosa for continuing to take the pill after news accounts warned of its dangers.
“The result should tell the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ lawyers that jurors do not believe the company should be punished for its conduct,” John Nyhan, the attorney who represented Showa Denko K. K., said Wednesday.
Lawsuits against the manufacturer are still pending in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Originally, about 220 were filed in Los Angeles County, 60 in San Diego County and 40 in Orange County. The manufacturer has been successful in settling about half the cases nationwide.
Although surprised and disappointed by the jury’s verdict, attorney Patrick McCormick said plaintiffs who stopped taking L-tryptophan after learning of its dangers--unlike DiRosa--should expect to win bigger awards.
“The verdict should be binding in all California courts,” McCormick said. “Fault has been established. We clearly showed that Showa Denko K. K. manufactured a defective product, one that never obtained FDA approval, and which has had a devastating impact.”
McCormick said L-tryptophan, classified as a food supplement and sold over the counter primarily in health food stores, led to more than 2,000 cases classified as EMS, or eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
In EMS, abnormal levels of white blood cells release a toxin that attacks body tissues with alarming consequences.
Officials say that 37 people have died. More than 4 million people are said to have taken L-tryptophan for insomnia, depression or premenstrual problems. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that causes sleepiness in humans. It occurs naturally in foods such as turkey and milk.
In 1988, DiRosa, a recently divorced single parent, began taking L-tryptophan in hopes of falling to sleep faster. Two years later, she developed symptoms that have not gone away and in many ways have worsened.
“I had an inability to sweat when I went outside. My legs swelled or got hard as rocks. I started losing hair,” she said. “I had such body aches that, finally, I couldn’t sleep at all.”
DiRosa went from “doctor to doctor to doctor,” before her condition was diagnosed by a UC San Diego School of Medicine researcher. He said she “looked like a burn victim, my skin was so charred,” DiRosa said.
She continues to take 12 medications and is being treated with chemotherapy. She has tissue damage to her lungs and heart, in addition to memory loss and cramps so severe that her walking is permanently impaired--all lasting effects that the manufacturer acknowledges.
She was “upset” about the jury’s verdict, saying she continued taking L-tryptophan after watching a news report that said a handful of people in New Mexico had developed mild symptoms as a result of using the pills.
“There was no mention of recalls, and I never saw another report,” she said. “L-tryptophan was still on the shelves, with no warning sign anywhere in sight. I didn’t buy another pill after that and don’t feel the least bit responsible for causing all of the horrible things that have happened to me. Was it really my fault?”