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Oregon sues J&J over Motrin recall

A lawsuit has been filed against J&J charging that the company exposed consumers to defective supplies of OTC painkiller Motrin (ibuprofen) by delaying a full public recall of the drug

Oregon's attorney general has filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson (J&J) charging that the company exposed consumers in the state to defective supplies of the over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller Motrin (ibuprofen) by delaying a full public recall of the drug even after it became clear that problems existed. The company opted instead to hire contractors to attempt to quietly buy up supplies of the product from store shelves, a strategy that left hundreds of potentially defective units unaccounted for, according to the complaint. 

"The 'phantom recall' failed to notify consumers who had already purchased the defective product and exposed additional consumers by delaying public disclosure for more than a year," according to a statement from the office of the state attorney general, John Kroger.

Filed on Wednesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the suit focuses on small sizes of Motrin that were sold at petrol stations, truck stops and convenience stores scattered across the state. J&J tests showed that the products were defective in that they failed to dissolve properly and therefore might not provide relief from pain and inflammation, according to the suit. 

To deal with the problem, the company initiated the phantom recall in 2009, but delayed an official recall until the following year. In July 2009, a whistleblower reported the phantom recall to the Oregon Board of Pharmacy, which in turn notified the FDA.

The suit alleges multiple violations of Oregon's Unlawful Trade Practices Act, which "prohibits employing unconscionable tactics, making certain false or misleading representations, or failing to disclose certain information". Each violation has a maximum penalty of $25,000, which could make the lawsuit more of a public relations challenge for J&J than a significant financial concern. 

J&J said it would attempt to have the suit dismissed. The company's actions were "consistent with applicable law and there was no health or safety risk to consumers associated with this limited recall," a spokeswoman told Reuters. 

The phantom recall, which was conducted by J&J's McNeil subsidiary, the maker of Motrin, is being investigated by the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In the wake of the publicity surrounding the recall and multiple other recalls of its OTC medicines, J&J recently announced that the head of its consumer products group, Colleen Goggins, will take early retirement, with effect from March 1. 

"This lawsuit is another example of how the Oregon Department of Justice is a national leader in combating healthcare fraud," Kroger said of the Oregon suit. It is not yet clear whether other states will follow Oregon's lead and file lawsuits of their own.

13th January 2011

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