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On March 25, Reuters news service reported that a jury in Boston awarded a verdict of $141 million in damages to plaintiffs Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, against defendants the Pfizer corporation. The jury found Pfizer was liable for its promotion of the drug Neurontin for off-label uses.
Drug companies are strictly prohibited by law from promoting their products for uses other than those for which the FDA has specifically approved them. The drug at issue, Neurontin, is a drug typically used to treat epilepsy. The jury found that the company had illegally promoted the drug for unapproved uses such as the treatment of migraine headaches, pain and bipolar disorder. The attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the drug does not work to treat any of these conditions.
According to Reuters, in 2004, Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million in penalties to federal and state governments and plead guilty to criminal charges of illegally marketing Neurontin. One of the arguments Pfizer attorneys plan to use in appealing last week's verdict is that the trial judge improperly allowed some details regarding that settlement to be heard and considered by the jury in the civil case.
The jury in the Pfizer case found the company to have violated the RICO statute, therefore under that law, the damages are three times what they would ordinarily be. The base verdict was $47 million dollars, and by law tripled, so the company may be liable for the full $141 million if their appeal and post-trial motions are unsuccessful.
Reuters writes that the company is disappointed in the verdict and does plan an appeal. In addition to the improper information given to the jury, the company' believes the plaintiffs' claim that the drug does not work for the off-label purposes it is prescribed for is not supported by the evidence. "Kaiser itself continues to recommend Neurontin for the same uses they sought recovery for in this case", Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder said. "Kaiser's own physicians and several of their expert witnesses prescribed Neurontin for their patients based on their sound medical judgment."
Even though drug companies may only promote drugs for their approved uses, doctors are free to prescribe drugs for any use they feel will benefit patients.