When Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes says a case is "about the health and safety of West Virginians," a certain amount of skepticism is warranted.
That's what she and her boss, Attorney General Darrell McGraw, say when targeting a drug manufacturer or some other out-of-state company for a multimillion-dollar payday disguised as a lawsuit in the public interest.
The case in question -- a suit against Janssen Pharmaceutical Products and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson, that now has reached the state supreme court -- fits the Hughes-McGraw pattern.
In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that certain types of drugs –- like Janssen's antipsychotic medication Risperdal and narcotic pain-relief patch Duragesic -- were associated with an increased risk of diabetes and required manufacturers of such drugs to publicize this information. That November, Janssen communicated the concerns to doctors, but downplayed the risks.
McGraw filed suit in 2004, claiming the drug company had made false and misleading statements about the two products.
In March 2009, Brooke Circuit Judge Martin Gaughan issued a summary judgment, imposing nearly $4.5 million in civil penalties against Janssen and Johnson & Johnson. The state Supreme Court began hearing the drug company's appeal this week.
Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania judge recently dismissed a similar suit against Janssen, concluding that the state had presented no evidence of any improper marketing of Risperdal.
West Virginians wondering whether this suit will survive appeal should remember that McGraw-engineered financial settlements rarely get into the state treasury or back into the pockets of taxpayers. Instead, the settlements usually get dispersed at McGraw's discretion, favoring cronies and increasing his political influence, while the public benefits marginally if at all.
Meanwhile, the companies targeted by the lawsuits are incentivized to restrict or terminate their operations in West Virginia.
Fran Hughes may be right when she says this case is "about the health and safety of West Virginians," because both could suffer if a judgment is rendered against Janssen.