The A. H. Robins Co., maker of the Dalkon Shield birth control device, today reported a net loss of $461.6 million for 1984 -- a sum larger than the company's entire net worth and a loss big enough to wipe out all shareholder dividends for the next two years.
The loss reflected a special reserve fund set up to cope with an avalanche of lawsuits over the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine device that was withdrawn from the market in 1974 after questions arose about its safety. Because of the fund, the company reported a loss despite record sales of $631.8 million.
On the New York Stock Exchange today, Robins' stock closed at $21.50, down $1.50.
In its first attempt to calculate the legal damages it faces from claims by users of the intrauterine device, the Richmond-based health care firm said it has created a reserve fund of $615 million that it expects will be paying out claims for the next 17 years, or until the year 2002.
The creation of the reserve fund and other disclosures by Robins today further confirm the Dalkon Shield's status as one of the costliest consumer products ever marketed. The device, which was sold by Robins between 1970 and 1974, has resulted in more than 12,000 lawsuits from women who claim to have suffered pelvic infections, sterility and involuntary abortions caused by the shield.
As of last Dec. 31, the company said it and its insurer, the Aetna Life & Casualty Company, had paid out $314.6 million to dispose of 8,300 of the claims. Even so, there were still 3,800 suits pending against Robins as of that date, and the company estimated today that another 8,300 will be filed in years to come.
In the first three months of 1985 alone, 899 new suits were filed against Robins -- an average of nearly 300 per month, which is nearly twice the average monthly rate of suits filed last year, company officials said. G. E. R. Stiles, Robin's senior vice president and chief financial officer, said at a news conference that the company had set up the reserve fund and settled the lawsuit as part of an effort "to put the Dalkon Shield episode behind us" and to "close a chapter" in Robins' history.
But analysts, while praising the firm's efforts to get a grip on the escalating Dalkon Shield litigation, said there was no way to determine if the reserve fund would do the trick. Stiles noted that the $615 million figure, based on a consultant's study of Dalkon Shield litigation, was only an estimate of the "minimum cost" it faces in compensatory damages from lawsuits in the United States. Specifically, the fund will not cover the cost of foreign lawsuits over the Dalkon Shield or any punitive damages that might be awarded by U.S. juries. Punitive damages, which can run into the tens of millions of dollars, are generally awarded when juries find that a company acted with "willful and wanton misconduct" and a "reckless disregard" for the rights of consumers.
"There's no question about it -- if they get hit with some big punitive damage awards, that's going to do them alot of harm," said Joseph Riccardo, an analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co. "They're clearly not out of the woods yet."
At the same time, Robins officials said they had settled an eight-year-old lawsuit with shareholders who accused the health care company of violating federal securities laws by making false and misleading statements about the Dalkon Shield to investors in the early 1970s. Without admitting any guilt, the company agreed to set up a separate $6.9 million fund to reimburse any shareholders who bought Robins stock between 1971 and 1974.
While Robins continues to believe it had a defensible case "on the merits," William A. Forrest Jr., vice president and general counsel, said the company had decided to settle because it feared a courtroom atmosphere in which "emotions and other factors might be more important than the facts."
"You could feel very comfortable about your case and recognize there's a chance that you will lose," said Forrest.
Robins, which earlier had delayed its annual meeting and publication of its annual report while it tried to figure out how much money to put into the reserve fund, said that because the $615 million was charged against its 1984 fourth-quarter balance sheet, the creation of the fund more than offset the company's operating earnings for the year. It also left Robins, whose best known products are Robitussin cough medicine and Chap Stick lip balm, with a net worth deficit of $128 million, Stiles said.
Under Virginia law, companies with a negative net worth cannot pay dividends to their shareholders, and Robins officials indicated that this is likely to continue until at least 1987.
But Stiles insisted that the deficit was a "bookkeeping matter" and the company would not have trouble paying its legal obligations unless it got hit with big punitive damages. He also noted that the company would be able to write off about $300 million of the reserve fund from its income taxes.
In response to questions from reporters, he declined to assess the possibility that the company could be forced to file for bankruptcy.