DID WALMART DISCRIMINATE AGAINST A MILLION WOMEN?
It’s an really, REALLY unfun month for big corporations trying to dodge lawsuits from gaggles of angry women.
First Walmart. Monday’s New York Times editorial explains the matter well.
For nine years, Wal-Mart has fought to stave off a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company has long discriminated against its female workers in pay and promotions. So far it has avoided a trial on the merits of the issue. The battleground instead is whether the million or so women who have worked for Wal-Mart since 2001 really constitute a class, which the company vigorously disputes. In 2004, a federal district court judge said they did, and in April the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling the case could proceed.
Now Wal-Mart has taken the class issue to the Supreme Court. It is probably a smart legal move, given the court’s clear tendency to rule in favor of corporations, particularly when big classes or discrimination claims are involved. We hope the court resists the temptation to toss out the case, which would force women to file lawsuits one by one. Wal-Mart’s employment practices deserve a full hearing.
It seems the whole thing started when nine women working for WalMart realized that they were being paid less than men who did the same work, plus the guys were being promoted more often.
A district judge who found in favor of the women noted that, according to statistics, women working in Walmarts in every region of the country were being similarly underpaid when compared to their male counterparts.
What the Supremes will have to decide is whether that means every one of the one million woman working at Walmart have been discriminated against. In other words, do the female workers at Walmart constitute a class? Or should their suits be—as a very jittery Walmart hopes—simply taken on a case by case basis.
One million women in a class action suit would make the Walmart action the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in American history—a stellar designation that Walmart would prefer to avoid.
WHICH BRINGS US TO PREMPRO—FEWER WOMEN SUING, BUT BIG POTENTIAL PAYOUTS
PremPro is the hormone replacement drug that, at one time, was the most popular on the market. It is made up of Premarin, a form of estrogen that is made from the urine of pregnant mares (gross, but there you have it), and Provera, a form of artificial progesterone.
Wyeth made Premarin, Upjohn, Provera. Wyeth eventually packaged the two together as PremPro. And, for years, doctors prescribed by the bucketful.
Around 20 years ago, however, some of the nation’s more research-savvy OB/GYNs stopped prescribing PremPro when other hormone replacements drugs were developed that more closely mimicked the body’s own original hormones, and thus were deemed safer (and had fewer side-effects).
Still the preponderance of American doctors continued to go with the familiar PremPro. To date, it is estimated around 6 million women worldwide have taken the drug.
Then in 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative made headlines when they stopped a massive study (sponsored by the National Institute of Health), after they found that women in the study who took PremPro were more likely to get breast cancer than those who did not.
PremPro-taking women with breast cancer wondered if Wyeth had suspected the risks and ignored them. Lawsuits resulted. Then more lawsuits.
Pfizer bought Wyeth around a year ago (and Upjohn in 2003)– along with it, as many as 9000 lawsuits filed by women with breast cancer who claimed that PremPro was, at least in part, to blame for their illness—and that Pfizer/Wyeth hid what they knew of its dangers..
At first, Wyeth/Pfizer was able to get a bunch of suits dismissed, but now the stronger suits are arriving in court, and the tide appears to have turned.
Out of the 12 cases that have thus far gotten in front of a jury, the score is Pfizer 5, women 7. (Here’s the result of one such case from last year., in which the jury concluded that the drug company purposely hid the risk of cancer.)
At the end of last week, Pfizer settled another case before trial.
Monday, a Pennsylvania Superior Court gave plaintiffs another win when she ruled that the two-year statue of limitations for women who allege their breast cancer was caused by PremPro started, not from the day they were diagnosed with cancer, but from the day the Women’s Health Initiative study was released.
Stay tuned. This issue is far from over.