By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON Dec 9 The U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday left intact a $142 million jury verdict against Pfizer
Inc over the marketing of the epilepsy drug Neurontin.
The jury had ruled in favor of an insurer who said it had
been misled into paying for the drug for "off-label" uses, or
uses for which it was not approved.
In 2010, the jury in Massachusetts found that due to
Pfizer's marketing of the drug for off-label uses, Kaiser
Foundation Health Plan Inc, one of the nation's
largest health maintenance organizations, and affiliates were
damaged because they paid for prescriptions relating to
conditions Neurontin did not effectively treat.
The Supreme Court's refusal to hear Pfizer's appeal means
similar claims brought against the company by insurer Aetna Inc
and Harden Manufacturing Corp can also go forward.
"While we are disappointed with the court's decision denying
the petition, the company has strong defenses on the merits in
the cases that will now proceed in the lower court," Pfizer said
in a statement. "Plaintiffs face significant hurdles before they
even reach trial."
Pfizer shares were unchanged at $31.54 in afternoon trading.
Pfizer asked the high court to weigh whether lower courts
correctly concluded that the company could be held liable under
federal racketeering law. Pfizer said the claims made under the
Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as
RICO, did not make a sufficient connection between the alleged
inaccurate marketing and the increase in what Kaiser had to pay
out for prescriptions.
In an April ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
upheld the jury verdict, finding that Pfizer should cover costs
for the marketing and prescribing of Neurontin for unapproved
uses, a practice that has also earned the company a hefty
In the related cases, the appeals court revived similar
claims made by Aetna and a class-action suit filed by Harden.
The jury in Massachusetts found that Pfizer had marketed
Neurontin for bipolar disorder, migraines and neuropathic pain,
none of which had been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug
Kaiser Permanente, a managed care company, said the ruling
was a reminder to pharmaceutical makers to abide by their legal
and ethical obligations or pay the cost. "The manipulated
research and information behind the marketing of Neurontin
misled physicians, pharmacists and patients alike into using
this expensive drug for off-label uses where the evidence did
not support it," it said in a statement. Kaiser Foundation
Health Plan Inc is part of Kaiser Permanente.
The verdict followed a $240 million criminal fine in 2004
paid by Pfizer's Warner-Lambert unit, as well as a $190 million
civil fine paid by Pfizer in connection with the off-label
Off-label uses included bipolar disorder, Lou Gehrig's
disease, restless leg syndrome, attention deficit disorder and
drug and alcohol withdrawal seizures.
Pfizer said the illegal marketing was conducted by
Warner-Lambert before Pfizer acquired the company in 2000.
Neurontin was developed by Warner-Lambert and was approved in
1993 to treat seizures at a maximum dose of 1,800 milligrams per
Doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs for uses that have
not been approved by U.S. health regulators, but companies are
prohibited from marketing their products for such purposes.
Morningstar analyst Damien Conover said most big payouts by
drugmakers for improper marketing of their products have been as
a result of government probes.
"I'm a little concerned these litigation trends could spread
more widely to private entities," Conover said. Should Kaiser
and other private plaintiffs prevail in their Neurontin battles
with Pfizer, more insurers might feel motivated to seek
financial recoveries of their own for other improperly marketed
drugs, he said.
Conover also said Pfizer could easily afford the $142
million judgment in the Kaiser case. The largest U.S. drugmaker
has annual sales of $50 billion.
Conover said he hoped more safeguards were in place to
prevent improper marketing of medicines, following major
settlements in the past decade that came as a result of
whistleblowers and their disclosures of such practices.
In 2009, Pfizer agreed to pay $2.3 billion to settle civil
and criminal allegations that it had improperly marketed
painkiller Bextra and other drugs, including Lyrica
(pregabalin), a medicine chemically similar to Neurontin which
is used to treat nerve pain.
The case is Pfizer Inc. v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan
Inc, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-289.