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St. Landry Parish, Louisiana

When the Pelican State’s government needs to raise easy money, it sues somebody, and it views St. Landry Parish as the jurisdiction in which to do so – even when there’s no harm to a state resident. Instead, Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti, Jr., since succeeded by Buddy Caldwell, hired profit-driven personal injury lawyers to sue a pharmaceutical company for a drug promotion that had already been fully addressed by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The result? An incredible $258 million judgment, believed to be the largest ever assessed in the parish and one of the largest in the history of the state.

Here’s what happened: Janssen Pharmaceutica, one of the Johnson & Johnson companies, sent a letter and called doctors touting Risperdal as superior to competing antipsychotic drugs on the market and its comparably smaller risk of diabetes. The FDA found that Janssen overstated the benefits and understated the potential risk, requiring the manufacturer to send a corrective letter to the doctors. Case closed?

Not quite. That’s when Louisiana sued on the basis of the regulatory finding by the FDA hoping to collect a windfall. How does a letter and phone calls justify a $258 million punishment? Lawyers for the state asked the jury to fine J&J up to $10,000 for each of the letters sent to 7,604 Louisiana physicians and for each of 27,542 sales calls made by drug representatives over a two-year period. The jury decided that $7,250 per letter or call was fair enough.

The disproportionate enormity of this verdict is better understood in comparison with a verdict obtained in a case involving similar allegations made by West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw. Even in that notorious Judicial Hellhole, the verdict was held to $4.5 million, and even that was overturned on appeal.

Of course, the St. Landry case will be appealed, as well. “We believe that the jury was not appropriately instructed on applicable legal standards and that critically and highly relevant evidence was excluded,” said a J&J spokesman. Attorney General Caldwell proclaimed that the verdict sends the message that “those who deceive the state must pay.” But the real message conveyed is: Beware of Louisiana’s civil justice system – it can lead to verdicts of hundreds of millions of dollars, even without evidence of actual harm.