Some might say Ronald V. Miller, Jr. is a gamekeeper turned poacher, a hard-nosed lawyer who suddenly had a change of heart.
Instead of representing pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, as he used to, Ellicott City-based Miller is now preparing to go to trial in a case on behalf of a 19-year Colorado youth with a grievance against another big drug company.
And it’s no ordinary case, either. Mark Taylor just happens to be a former student at probably the most infamous high school in the world: Columbine.
On Tuesday, April 21, 1999, Taylor was shot seven times by teenage killer Eric Harris during the infamous seven-minute, 30-second murder spree that left 13 innocent people, plus Harris and his accomplice, Dylan Klebold, dead.
Miller says that after spending six years “looking in the eyes of people who have lost those closest to him,” he felt he had to do something different. “Fighting those people does not give you a warm, fuzzy feeling when you go to sleep at night,” he says.
Taylor’s is the kind of case he is talking about.
“I sleep better at night now that I’m protecting the rights of people like Mark Taylor who have been injured,” he concludes, although he adds that he doesn’t think it’s “dishonorable work, defending drug companies.”
Ever since the day of the shooting, the burning question in everyone’s minds, much like the reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks, has been: Why?
Miller thinks he knows at least one of the answers — and, at the trial in Denver next March, he hopes to prove it.
Taylor’s suit is against Solvay Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures the antidepressant drug Luvox. The only drug of its type deemed acceptable for children, Luvox had been prescribed for Harris to treat obsessive compulsive disorder.
“You take a troubled kid like Eric Harris, you give him a stick of dynamite, you can’t be surprised when he explodes,” says Miller.
The suit claims that Solvay was negligent because it “should have know that the use of Luvox may have been harmful…in the form of causing the user to become psychotic, violent, emotionally blunted, disinhibited and eventually suicidal.”
Solvay flatly denies all the allegations.
The company’s lawyer, Mark F. Kennedy, maintains that “no governmental agency, medical authority or research organization has ever concluded that Luvox causes any kind of suicidal or violent behavior.”
He adds that since Luvox was approved in 1994 “hundreds of thousands of people” have been prescribed it without suffering such ill effects.
Miller admits that Harris obviously had other personal difficulties but maintains that “a lot of kids have problems, and they don’t shoot up their schools.”
In Miller’s view, “this indicates that Harris had drug-induced mania” when he unleashed bloody mayhem on his classmates.
Although the original suit was brought by nine plaintiffs, including the wife of William Sanders, the only teacher killed at Columbine, Taylor’s family is the only one not to have dropped out.
Miller says this is simply because of Colorado law, which sometimes calls losers in civil actions to pay their opponents legal fees.
The impressive, and expensive, legal team Solvay has assembled — “They don’t go anywhere without at least four lawyers,” says Miller — caused the other plaintiffs to back off, but the Taylor family stayed put.
“My client believes what the drug company did was wrong,” Miller says by way of explanation, adding that Taylor now travels the country talking about Luvox and the alleged side-effects.
He also notes that Solvay and the other drug companies take these cases seriously because products like Luvox “make tons of money.”
Miller became something of an expert on litigation concerning anti-depressant drugs like Luvox, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (or SSRIs), when he served as counsel for Glaxo when working for Whitney and Bogris in Towson.
Glaxo is not involved in the current litigation, but does manufacture another anti-depressant called Paxil, which has also been the subject of legal action.
To date, the federal government has sided with the drug companies, with the Food and Drug Administration stating that it has found no scientific basis to show that such drugs cause violence or suicide.
Miller was not involved when the Taylor suit was filed, but he was contacted at an early stage, mainly because “the SSRI litigation community is small and it had become known that I had stopped working for Glaxo,” as he puts it.
Initially Miller turned down an offer to join the case because he did not believe there was enough financial backing for the litigation. He agreed to participate after Lisa Van Syckel, a New Jersey woman whose daughter suffered a violent reaction to a drug similar to Luvox, donated what Miller describes as “a substantial amount” of money.
The [Colorado] Rocky Mountain News reported last month that she has given $31,000 so far and has pledged “to do whatever it takes.”
Although the trial is not until March, Miller and his co-counsel, John W. DeCamp, were in court at the end of October fighting to save the case from collapsing before it had even started. Solvay’s lawyers claimed that two of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses should not be allowed to present testimony at the trial because they had missed a deadline for viewing evidence.
Miller claims the deadlines were missed because his team had not, at that stage, had enough money to transport the experts to Colorado.
The Denver Post reported that U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimner was “visibly angry” and said he will not allow the experts to view the evidence, thereby limiting what they will be able to say at the trial.
But Solvay’s motion to have the experts excluded altogether, which would have scuttled Taylor’s case, failed.
Miller would not speculate on the amount of damages he hopes to win, although he mentions Tobin v. GlaxoSmithKline, a case in Wyoming two years ago in which surviving relatives of a man who murdered his family after taking two Paxil tablets won $8 million in damages for wrongful death.
“I’m confident that when a jury sees the facts, they will see that Solvay is liable,” he says.
And if he is successful, there is sure to be more game for the poacher to hunt.
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