An article in Wednesday's Metro section reported incorrectly that Springfield resident Antonio Benedi drank wine and took Tylenol during a flu-like illness in 1993. Benedi said he stopped drinking wine during his illness. Several days later, he was hospitalized with liver failure attributed to Tylenol use. (Published 01/19/96)
Six weeks ago, Antonio Benedi walked out of his lawyer's office with a check for more than $5 million, courtesy of a federal jury that found the makers of Tylenol liable for destroying his liver. When he reached his Springfield home, he placed the check on the night table next to his bed. For two days, he stared at it, trying to figure out how his entire life had been reduced to a handwritten number on a piece of paper.
"I didn't win the lottery; I lost my health," Benedi, 40, said. "Your entire life, your goals, your dreams, are all wrapped up into one amount on a check. I couldn't bring myself to take it to the bank."
Almost three years after he nearly died taking Tylenol and drinking about three glasses of wine a day for several days, Benedi has beaten one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. An appeal of the October 1994 U.S. District Court verdict by Tylenol's maker, McNeil Consumer Products Co., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has been rejected. Benedi's wife, Maria, and his two sons now are financially secure, but there's been no spending spree. The millions of dollars will pay college tuition and replace the salary Benedi can no longer make.
Benedi -- Tony to his family and friends -- is grateful that a last-minute liver transplant in February 1993 has extended his life longer than his doctors expected. Benedi had gone into a coma with liver failure after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol for about three days to fight off the flu. But there is unfinished business.
As publicity about his case fades, Benedi doesn't want people to forget its lesson: Some people who drink alcohol and take the maximum recommended dose of acetaminophen -- the generic name of the main ingredient in Tylenol -- could suffer liver damage.
Johnson & Johnson is putting alcohol-related warnings on its adult Tylenol products, even though the Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue long-promised regulations on such label warnings. Benedi, however, contends that some of the drug company's advertising sends a different and dangerously inaccurate message.
The label says that those who drink should consult a doctor about taking painkillers, and a Johnson & Johnson ad that ran in Parade magazine in December repeated that message but added, "You can be assured, if you're an occasional drinker, you can use Tylenol with confidence."
Benedi, who was President George Bush's scheduler for four years, said that ad motivated him to talk publicly about his battle with the company.
Johnson & Johnson said during the trial -- and maintains today -- that Tylenol did not damage Benedi's liver and that its advertisements have accurately portrayed the effects of drinking alcohol and taking the medication. The company said that Benedi's liver was destroyed by a herpes infection. Federal judges noted in rejecting the company's appeal, however, that Benedi tested negative for herpes before receiving massive blood transfusions after his liver transplant.
Documented cases of severe liver damage linked to Tylenol are rare, Johnson & Johnson spokesman Jeff Leebaw said. "Tylenol has a remarkable safety record," he said.
According to Hyman J. Zimmerman, a liver specialist and emeritus professor of medicine at George Washington University, people react differently to the mix of alcohol and acetaminophen. Zimmerman, who testified at Benedi's trial in Alexandria, said there are about 170 reported cases of severe liver damage attributed to acetaminophen, perhaps 20 percent of them fatal, over two decades.
More lawsuits such as Benedi's are pending, including four filed yesterday in Philadelphia against McNeil Consumer Products, which is based there. History will decide whether Benedi's case was a fluke or the opening of floodgates.
Benedi said he is no vigilante hellbent on revenge. He said he filed the suit in part to provide for his family after he dies, in part to prevent others from unknowingly sharing his fate. Benedi was in an apparently unique position to tackle the company.
Until February 1993, when Benedi's liver was destroyed in less than a week, many known cases of acetaminophen-related liver damage occurred among alcoholics or people who overdosed on Tylenol. But a Fairfax Hospital pathologist attributed Benedi's liver failure solely to Tylenol toxicity. Benedi said he did not exceed the maximum dosage on the Tylenol label and drank an average of three glasses of wine in the evenings, typically around dinner time.
For the Cuban-born Benedi, who became a U.S. citizen in 1976 in the same courtroom where he would take on Johnson & Johnson many years later, drinking wine was a tradition in his family. Tylenol's maker didn't claim in court that his drinking caused the liver failure.
There was more in Benedi's case against Johnson & Johnson. His attorney, Patrick Malone, presented evidence that the company had known for more than a decade of the danger of mixing alcohol and acetaminophen, and he introduced a memo in which corporate officials told sales representatives not to mention the problem to clients.
It took an Alexandria jury less than three hours to rule in Benedi's favor and award him $8.8 million, but he and his family sweated out the appeals process for more than a year.
"Most people think, wow, I won the lottery," said Maria Benedi, 37, a preschool teacher. "They don't realize it's for medical expenses, college, if something happens."
She pauses. That "something" -- the day when the transplanted liver may fail or her husband's transplant rejection-prevention medicine could destroy his kidneys -- is never far from their minds. The one big purchase they made after the money came was a Jeep Cherokee, which they use to get Benedi to doctor's offices.
Sons Tony, 10, and Jamie, 8, have vivid memories of the night when the ambulance carried off their comatose father, who was in good health until a flulike virus prompted him to take Tylenol for several days, while still drinking wine. Maria Benedi can't forget arriving at the hospital and being told by doctors not to wait until morning to call her in-laws.
"They said, We don't think he can make it till the morning,' " she recalled.
The Benedis say the $5 million -- the amount of the award remaining after legal bills -- hasn't changed how they live. But the case has affected their outlook on life.
Despite Benedi's lingering pain and lack of energy, he is driven by the fear that the danger of taking acetaminophen and alcohol is being forgotten by the public, and he gives regular talks on the importance of organ donation.
"I wish I could let you see for one day, for one minute, through my eyes," he said in a recent speech to transplant recipients and donors, "and let you witness firsthand how very beautiful life is for me."
His example has been a powerful one for friends.
"Tony is an inspiration," said Rockville resident Pam Whicher, whose husband, Alan, was among nearly 90 Secret Service agents who donated blood when Benedi was in Fairfax Hospital. Two years later, after Alan Whicher died in the Oklahoma City bombing, Benedi helped organize a golf fund-raiser to benefit the children of the agents who perished.
"Tony has helped me," Pam Whicher said. "There's some comfort for me knowing that Alan's blood is flowing through his veins."
Benedi grieves for the time, which never feels far away, when he will not be with his family. But mostly, he enjoys the moment: candlelit dinners with Maria, Little League baseball games with Tony, soccer matches with Jamie. "Don't read one book at night to your kids if they ask you; read two," he said.
By going to court to try to secure his family's future, "I want my kids to be proud of me," Benedi said. "I want them to see that I made a difference."
That -- and not a $5 million check, Benedi said -- "is a heck of a measure of a successful life." CAPTION: Maria and Antonio Benedi at home. He went into a coma with liver failure after taking a combination of Tylenol and wine over three days in 1993. A videotaped news report about the 1994 verdict plays on the TV.