Johnson & Johnson medical device maker Ethicon Inc. has settled a whistleblower claim that it fired an executive, not over his relationship with a younger, female employee, as the company had claimed, but in retaliation after he lawfully raised product safety concerns that cost the company millions of dollars. The settlement came after almost five weeks of trial and during jury deliberations in Middlesex County Superior Court. The settlement was in litigation that had been going on for a decade and had proceeded to trial after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in July that “watchdog employees” are covered under the state’s whistleblower law.
Plaintiff Joel S. Lippman, 61, had joined Ethicon in 2000, after a decade as an executive at J&J subsidiary Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical LLC. During his time at Ethicon, his safety concerns derailed profits for a coronary artery bypass graft surgery device, a gel used to prevent post-surgery abdominal adhesions, surgical mesh and other products. After refusing an offer to resign, Lippman was fired in May 2006, five months after a recall that cost the company $40 million.
During the trial, Lippman’s lawyers argued that his concerns had pitted him against executives who were under tremendous pressure to put new products on the market and revealed a “widespread” corporate culture that put profits before safety. Lippman claimed the firing, which he testified was done via FedEx, cost him $9.6 million in economic losses. Ethicon contended that Lippman put the company at legal risk by romantically pursuing a woman who worked in his department. Both parties testified that their courtship was consensual and consisted of emails, cards, flowers, music CDs and two overnight trips, but was never consummated. The Defense had portrayed the dynamic as one in which Lippman used his powerful position to take advantage of a young, career-minded woman.
Ethicon and J&J had won summary dismissal of Lippman’s lawsuit at the trial-court level, but that decision was overturned by the state’s Appellate Division in September 2013. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to take up the case in March 2014. Lippman is represented by Bruce P. McMoran, Michael O’Connor and Justin D. Burns of McMoran O’Connor & Bramley PC. They did a very good job for their client.
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