An Inclusive Litany

5/17/02

The family of 15-year-old Charles Bishop filed a $70 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Hoffman-La Roche, the manufacturer of Accutane, a powerful anti-acne drug prescribed to Bishop that has been alleged to cause depression, saying that nothing else explains their son's decision in January to crash a single-engine Cessna into a 42-story building in Tampa, Florida. Bishop left behind a suicide note praising Osama bin Laden. Prior to that, Julia Bishop says her son was a perfectly normal boy, an honor student and aspiring pilot who even penned an essay critical of bin Laden following the September 11 attacks.

The Hillsborough Medical Examiner's office found no trace of Accutane in the boy's bloodstream, but because they were unable to obtain samples of brain tissue from the crash site, they were unable to rule out the possibility that he may have been taking the medication. Julia Bishop insists her son had been taking the medicine twice a day for many months, and had taken it that morning. Attorneys with the Accutane Litigation Group representing the Bishop family say the drug is unsafe and that Roche negligently continued to manufacture and market it while downplaying dangerous side effects. Their $70 million claim represents about 10 percent of what the company earns in revenue from the drug.

While declining to discuss details of the lawsuit, Roche denied any link between the drug and suicide. "There is no scientific rationale to think there would be a link between the two," company spokeswoman Carolyn Glynn said, adding that the drug has long been known to cause serious birth defects. Since 1982, 13 million people have taken the drug, about 150 of whom have committed suicide. Glynn notes that rate is much lower than that of the general population ages 15 to 24, which seems to imply the drug may be indirectly effective as a confidence builder. As of March 2001, the Food and Drug Administration noted 66 instances of Accutane users committing suicide, a rate of 0.00055 per 100,000, compared with the much higher general rate of 10 per 100,000 in that age range, among whom suicide is the third leading killer.

Still, there have been enough reports of depression and suicidal tendencies that the FDA requires Accutane patients to sign an extensive consent form acknowledging its alleged risks. Part of that consent form required the Bishops to notify their physician "if anyone in the family has ever had symptoms of depression, been psychotic, attempted suicide, or had any other serious mental problems." Julia Bishop failed to divulge that in 1984, she and Charles's estranged father failed in a bloody suicide pact during which she stabbed him with a 12-inch butcher knife, an incident her lawyer discounts as "completely irrelevant," and which she characterized as "an act of drug and alcohol abuse" rather than mental illness. Time magazine reports that there was also another failed joint suicide attempt.

The father, Charles Bishara, is an Arab who hails from Lebanon, prompting speculation over whether a different set of motivations may have influenced the boy. The couple's marriage in 1986 soon dissolved after Charles became an abusive husband. Thereafter, Julia moved with her son to various cities, changing their name from Bishara to Bishop during the Gulf War in order to shed their Arabic identity. Officials could not locate the father, but believe he lives in New England. The boy's grandfather, Robert Bishara of Everett, Massachusetts, said that he hadn't seen his son in six years.

Accutane previously came under fire in 2000 after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) blamed it for his son's suicide, leading him to initiate a series of highly visible congressional hearings on the drug's safety. Stupak told the St. Petersburg Times he immediately thought of Accutane when he heard of the plane crash in Tampa. "I said to my wife, 'Did you hear about that kid in the plane in Tampa? I wonder if that was related to Accutane?' " he said. Stupak wants Accutane off the market "until we know what's going on."

Coincidentally, in another case against Roche, the first to come to trial, an Oklahoma jury rejected a woman's $3 million lawsuit claiming that Accutane caused her to suffer bouts of depression.

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