Trovan and Lessons From Bhopal: Have the Courage to be Human

It's pretty challenging to keep up with new developments the "Trovan" clinical trials case in Nigeria, where Pfizer faces four separate lawsuits, two in Kano, the state where the trials took place, and two federal suits.

The civil suits alone, on the federal and state levels, seek $9 billion in damages. Then there are the criminal suits. This week, according to the International Herald Tribune, judge Anwuri Shekere granted government lawyer Babatunde Irukela extra time to prepare the state criminal trial, which will continue on October 29. In a Voice of America report, Irukela said, "The government believes there have been violations of law which constitute criminal offenses, and that's the basis of the criminal charges." He said that 23 counts revolve around conduct before, during and after the clinical trials. To access the full report and audio, click here.

Pfizer, meanwhile, has told a Kano High Court that the state criminal suit "has no merit, is frivolous and a gross abuse of the court process,"Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper reports today.

Perhaps they're right, but Pfizer's legal and P.R. teams could still do well to study a huge and image shattering case history in the developing world: the lawsuit against Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal plant explosion in Madhya Pradesh, India. The scale and details of the two tragedies are completely different. Carbide's responsibility was clearly established, while Pfizer's guilt hasn't been, officially. Bhopal occurred on a huge and unprecedented scale involving thousands. In the Trovan case, roughly 200 children were involved. There was no tangible "plant explosion" and toxic gas cloud in Kano, and Pfizer maintains that it followed the letter of the law in every aspect of the Trovan trials.

Yet, Pfizer could avoid some of the mistakes that Union Carbide made in that case: pointing to a "disgruntled employee," for example, who, for some reason, could never be found and publicly named, to distract attention from inadequate safety at the site. Even if Pfizer is without fault (and a Nigerian study publicized last year disputes that claim), some high ranking official, even the CEO, could make a statement that acknowledges, publicly, the complexities of the situation. Some high-ranking representatives should also be there, in person, at the trials.

The biggest mistake Pfizer could make would be to project callousness and fail to acknowledge that there may have been misunderstandings involved. Serious mistakes are often made in international clinical trials. Consider the language and cultural barriers and the frantic environment in an emergency setting. Perhaps there's also something to learn for the future from American University's Bhopal case histories in the Mandala Project, which cited "serious communication problems and management gaps between headquarters and onsite operations, the parent company's hands off approach to overseas operations and cross-cultural barriers."

So far, Pfizer's public statements concerning Trovan have been terse. Even if the company can prove that it is without fault in this case, it should also be ready to project a more open and sympathetic image and to offer a generous settlement. Carbide started out well with its P.R. efforts, and yet results fell far short of what they might have been, culminating with an extremely inadequate financial settlement and Bhopal authorities charging former CEO Warren Anderson with manslaughter and calling for his extradition. The negative buzz haunted the company (now restructured and radically different from what it was) and Dow (which acquired many of Carbide's assets) for years.

Pfizer, even before this case begins, has already seen a huge amount of negative spin surrounding the case, and even a novel and a movie that were said to be inspired by this complex story. Some insights from Indian writer, Suketu Mehta, in a speech given back in 1996. "...I was speaking to Carbide's chief of public relations. He has been to India about fifteen times. I asked him if he could recall anybody in particular among the victims, anybody that personally affected him. He replied, "I don't remember any names of people." Then he thought for a while. "There were some people that were having difficulties breathing." "As an employee of Carbide, do you feel any personal responsibility, I asked the executive. "No," he answered..."

Mr. Mehta also mentions lawyer Brian Mooney, who worked for Kelly, Drye, and Warren, Carbide's law firm in New York which represented the company in the case. He apparently left the firm, enrolled as a graduate student in anthropology and went back to Bhopal gathering stories of the survivors for his dissertation.  He wanted to teach law, and to instill some of the understanding and compassion required by corporate officials whose companies are doing business in developing nations. "Having the courage to be  human within the structure of the modern corporation is, perhaps, in itself a heroic act," Mehta wrote. Perhaps Pfizer will show some of that courage next October.

-AMS