A French drugmaker has been found guilty of manslaughter and deception over a weight-loss pill which was on the market for 33 years and blamed for hundreds of deaths.
One of the country’s biggest health scandals came to a conclusion in a Paris court on Monday as the Paris court’s presiding judge Sylvie Daunis said Servier had “misled consumers” about the Mediator pill and “weakened people’s trust in the health system”.
Daunis said: “Although they knew about the risks for many years … they never took the necessary measures.”
Servier’s former deputy boss, Jean-Philippe Seta, was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence of four years. Its chairman, Jacques Servier, was indicted early in the legal process but died in 2014.
The company was also fined 2.7 million euros ($3.1m) for aggravated deceit, manslaughter and causing unintentional injury. It was acquitted of fraud.
France’s health ministry has said at least 500 people died of heart valve problems nationally because of exposure to the active ingredient in Mediator. Experts say it may eventually cause as many as 2,100 deaths.
The drug was used by about five million people before being pulled in France in 2009 over fears it could cause serious heart problems – more than a decade after such concerns had first been raised.
A huge trial over the scandal was spread over 10 months in 2019 and 2020 and nearly 400 lawyers worked on the case.
France’s medicines agency was fined 303,000 euros ($356,000) for its delay in suspending Mediator and told it had “seriously failed” in its role as health watchdog.
Prosecutors had asked for nearly 15 million euros (nearly $18m) in fines for Servier, and a three-year prison sentence and fine for Seta, the only surviving Servier executive accused of involvement in the scandal.
The 6,500 claimants involved in the case are seeking 1 billion euros ($1.17bn) in damages.
Servier has acknowledged in the past that Mediator had serious consequences for some patients and agreed to compensate some victims, but it also said it would fight inaccuracies and false statements.
Lawyers for the company had argued the firm was not aware of the risks associated with Mediator before 2009. They also said Servier never pretended it was a diet pill.
Once licensed as a diabetes treatment, Mediator was widely prescribed as an appetite suppressant to help people lose weight.
Its active chemical substance is known as Benfluorex.
One doctor flagged concerns over the pill as far back as 1998, and testified that he was bullied into retracting them.
Facing questions about side effects from medical authorities in Switzerland, Spain and Italy, Servier withdrew it from those markets between 1997 and 2004.
It took an independent investigation by another worried French doctor before the company suspended sales in its main market in France.