A former vice president at two Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries claims in a lawsuit he was fired for seeking recalls of numerous faulty products, including the Ortho Evra birth control patch, itself the subject of at least 1,000 product liability suits.
New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s biggest drug and medical product makers, said last week the ex-executive was fired for inappropriate conduct.
In his civil complaint, Dr. Joel S. Lippman alleges he was unlawfully terminated on May 15, after working for Johnson & Johnson for 15 years, because he repeatedly complained about product safety problems and urged several be recalled or not launched. Lippman declined to be interviewed.
“He feels horribly wronged,” said Lippman’s attorney, Bruce McMoran. “He was fired at the peak of his career for doing his job.”
Lippman, 52, of Warren, began working for J&J in 1990 and worked his way up to vice president of clinical trials for Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical Inc., which makes contraceptives and other women’s health products. He was worldwide vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at J&J’s Ethicon Inc., which makes surgery and wound care products, and was making $1.15 million a year including bonuses and stock options when he was fired.
Lippman, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University and a medical degree, has not found employment since the firing and is suffering from emotional distress and physical problems, the lawsuit states.
Filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Middlesex County on Nov. 13, it seeks lost past and future salary and lost bonuses, pension contributions and other benefits.
The lawsuit alleges Lippman’s problems with his employer began when he complained about inadequate safety data on a hormonal menopausal product called Ortho-Prefest and about serious health concerns over the Ortho Evra patch, “which released dangerously high levels of estrogen into patients.”
This September, the Food and Drug Administration required J&J to add a warning to the Ortho Evra package insert stating the risk of dangerous blood clots in the legs and lungs may be higher for women on the patch instead of birth-control pills.
It is unclear whether Ortho-Prefest was ever sold, but J&J disregarded Lippman’s worries about Ortho Evra and launched the product, then transferred him to Ethicon, according to the lawsuit.
Soon after joining Ethicon in 2000, Lippman complained research data indicated a product about to be launched could block arteries; he was told that if he kept opposing the launch, “his action could affect his bonus and standing with the company,” the suit states.
In 2002, he insisted on recalling a product for preventing painful scarring after gynecological surgery that had caused serious injuries and deaths, according to the suit. After a year, the company recalled it, but he and colleagues were soon scolded over the recall.
“They were criticized and verbally attacked as not being part of the team,” McMoran told The Associated Press.
According to the suit, over the next few years Lippman complained about safety problems with five other devices, including an applicator used in endoscopic procedures that “oozed chromium during use” and ProCeed, a surgical mesh for hernia repair that FDA ordered the company to recall. Lippman, who was then dismissed, also is alleging age discrimination.
“We would hope that the bringing of this type of suit would encourage companies not to retaliate against employees who blow the whistle,” McMoran said.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said Lippman was fired “as a result of inappropriate conduct and mismanagement of responsibilities unrelated to the allegations he raises in the lawsuit.”
The statement said J&J “will vigorously defend against the claims because the allegations are not true. Our company remains committed to providing quality products that yield positive patient outcomes.”
As of Oct. 1, J&J reported about 1,000 claimants had filed lawsuits or made claims alleging Ortho Evra caused injuries.
Some women using Ortho Evra, including women in their 20s, have died of blood clots. Attorneys who specialize in medical product liability suits are seeking more plaintiffs through Internet sites, so more suits are likely.
Attorney Ellen Relkin, who is on committees of plaintiffs lawyers overseeing both federal Ortho Evra lawsuits and those filed in New Jersey, said news of Lippman’s lawsuit will have some impact on the number of product liability suits, particularly among women who believe Ortho Evra injured them but hadn’t yet sued.
She said documents and testimony from Lippman’s case also could come into play in the product liability lawsuits.
“We have millions of documents that the lawyers are reviewing that we’ve received from Johnson & Johnson (in Ortho Evra lawsuits) and we’ll take a closer look at anything involving him,” Relkin said.