The Nigerian government took a seven billion dollar (5.2 billion euro) negligence suit against the world's biggest pharmaceutical company Pfizer to court Tuesday, as the US giant demanded the charges be dismissed.
But the government's case suffered an early setback when the court rejected a request to allow it to submit "additional facts", before presiding judge Babs Kwewumi adjourned the trial to July 20.
Government lawyer Babatunde Irukera had asked to be allowed to introduce additional documents to the court, which would make it impossible for Pfizer to invoke the statute of limitations, as the alleged offences date from 1996.
The government is seeking damages after nearly 200 children either died or suffered deformities following trials for a new drug the US multinational carried out in the mid-1990s.
Nigeria has based its case on claims that Pfizer had no authorisation or parental consent to carry out the trial in Africa's most populous country. Pfizer insists it had full approval for the tests.
The drugs trial took place in the northern province of Kano in 1996, but the government only brought the case on June 4.
After the hearing, Irukera told journalists the additional facts were linked to what he said was an undertaking by Pfizer during separate earlier legal proceedings in the United States.
"In exchange for having those cases dismissed before the US court, Pfizer agreed it would not raise any type of defence that could ... suggest this action occurred 11 years ago and as a result it is statute barred," he said.
The government feared that Pfizer would renege on this undertaking, he said.
Lawyers told AFP that there were grounds in Nigerian law for arguing that the case filed 11 years later by the Nigerian government should have been brought within a maximum of six years from the alleged facts.
The drug trial was carried out in the northern city of Kano when there was an epidemic of meningitis, measles and cholera.
Nigeria filed a lawsuit June 4 against Pfizer for allegedly administering a test antibiotic called Trovan without authorisation or parental consent among children at a field hospital in the heart of the epidemic in Kano.
A similar suit was filed a couple of weeks earlier by authorities in Kano, Nigeria's largest state, which is seeking 2.75 billion dollars from Pfizer.
"In the midst of the epidemic, Pfizer devised a scheme under which it misrepresented and failed to disclose its primary motive in seeking to participate in giving care to the victims of the epidemic," the Kano state said in its suit.
Kano State has started both civil and criminal proceedings. The federal government has brought only a civil case.
Pfizer's lawyer Afe Babalola told journalists after Tuesday's hearing that the government case was unfounded.
"I found that there is no truth whatsoever in the claim by the federal government that my client did not obtain approval from the National Food and Drug Administration Council, NAFDAC, before coming to this place," he said.
"There are documents showing that before Pfizer came .. they wrote to the federal government and the federal government accepted and welcomed them," he continued.
"There was nothing fraudulent or surreptitious which my client did."
In Kano, the justice commissioner who filed the Kano State suits against Pfizer on behalf of the state and families of the victims, said he would accept an out-of-court settlement on the issue of compensation.
"If the defendants shows willingness to settle out of court ... we can do that with the consent of the victims and their families," Aliyu Umar, told AFP
He also said he favoured consolidating the two civil suits.
"But on the criminal suit, no matter how long it takes, we will pursue it to its conclusion," Umar said.
Of the 200 children affected, 11 died while many more -- reportedly 181 -- suffered from deafness, paralysis, brain damage and blindness, according to the allegations.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared Trovan for adult use in 1997 and the drug swiftly became established as one of the most prescribed antibiotics in the US market.
It was later associated with reports of liver damage and deaths, prompting the FDA in 1999 to restrict its use to serious adult cases.
That same year, European drug regulators recommended its suspension from the European market, a decision that has since been made permanent, according to the Pfizer website.
The Nigerian government is also suing several of the company's current and former executives, all of whom are represented by different counsel.