A whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2005 by former employees against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals of New Jersey (which was subsequently purchased by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer) has been joined by the U.S. Justice Department. The suit alleges violations under the False Claims Act and could result in a judgment against Pfizer in the hundreds of millions of dollars due to inappropriate billing of public health programs and other wrongdoing. The government’s entry into the action suggests that significantly larger consequences may be at stake for the drug company.
“It’s going to be a big case,” said Patrick Burns of Taxpayers Against Fraud in the New York Times. “The wild card is, it’s Pfizer. The government’s not happy with Pfizer. These are repeat offenders.” Pfizer is currently subject to a corporate integrity agreement based on a case in which it paid the largest criminal fine in U.S. history, $1.3 billion, for illegally marketing various painkillers and other medications. That case also involved an additional $1 billion in civil penalties and damages.
The current whistleblower lawsuit before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was filed by two Wyeth sales managers who asserted that their employer encouraged them to push the drug Rapamune’s benefits for a variety of organ transplant procedures, disregarding a potential risk for organ rejection. Recently unsealed court documents also reveal that the company is accused of providing cash incentives and gifts to doctors to promote off-label use of the drug, targeting high-risk African-American patients, and causing illness and even death to patients.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Rapamune in 1999, but only for kidney transplants. In False Claims Act cases, the law authorizes treble damages to the government, which in turn can reward the whistleblowers with as much as a quarter of the total amount collected from the fraudulent actor. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have also joined the case, citing violations of various state anti-fraud statutes.
Qui Tam Actions Provide Incentives to Employees and Others to Expose Fraud Against the Government
The law provides protection to employees who undertake considerable personal and professional risks to bring employer wrongdoing to light. Virtually any act of fraud against the federal government is subject to legal action under the False Claims Act if an individual with knowledge of the improper action is willing to step forward.
But the lengthy timeline evident in the current case against Wyeth and Pfizer highlights one very important aspect of legal action: it is important to enlist experienced legal counsel to protect the plaintiff’s identity and interests as litigation evolves. Absolute confidentiality and knowledgeable advice are vital at every stage of the process. By ensuring that the law firm he or she chooses is willing to handle the case on a contingency fee basis, a plaintiff can proceed with confidence that the taxpayers’ interests as well their own will be protected without undertaking a huge financial risk.