We’ve frequently reported here on the Prescription Access Litigation (PAL) blog about the class action lawsuit brought by PAL coalition member SEIU Health & Welfare Fund and others against Abbott Laboratories [NYSE:ABT], challenging Abbott’s December 2003 price increase of 400% on its HIV/AIDS drug, Norvir. That lawsuit alleged that Abbott’s price-hike was intended to increase the sales and market share of another Abbott HIV/AIDS drug, Kaletra.

We’re pleased to announce that SEIU Health & Welfare Fund, the two individual plaintiffs in the class action and Abbott agreed to a proposed settlement of the case on August 13, 2008. Abbott has agreed to pay between $10 Million and $27.5 Million, depending on court rulings to come, to settle the nationwide claims by consumers who were overcharged for the medicine.

There have been a number of important decisions by the Court to date that have set the stage for this settlement. On June 11, 2007, the Court certified the case as a nationwide class action. On May 16, 2008 the Court issued a ruling that was a partial victory for the plaintiffs and a partial victory for Abbott. The Court held that Abbott could not claim a patent that it holds on Norvir as a defense to the plaintiffs’ claims (the partial win for the plaintiffs). However, the Court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for “unjust enrichment.” These claims alleged that Abbott was “unjustly enriched” by its allegedly illegal Norvir price hike.

What’s important about this dismissal is that these common law unjust enrichment claims were the only nationwide claims for monetary damages (as opposed to claims for “injunctive relief,” that is, for changes in company practices) in the case. When the Court dismissed these claims, the only claims for damages that remained in the case were under California state law. Thus, in a nutshell, after the Court’s May 16 order, the case for monetary damages was narrowed to cover just consumers and health plans in California.

Abbott had asked the Court to allow an “interlocutory appeal.” This means, basically, that Abbott asked the District Court to ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to make a decision on a particular question of antitrust law that Abbott felt could determine the outcome of the case. The Court refused, since the trial was at that point only three months away.

The proposed settlement attempts to get the Court of Appeals to resolve this and several other legal issues, and to tie the amount of the settlement to the decisions of the Court of Appeals. Abbott and the plaintiffs will ask the court hearing the case (the federal District Court for the Northern District of California) to allow them to appeal three legal issues to the 9th Circuit immediately. These legal issues are ones that have been essential to the plaintiff’s success so far, and which Abbott would likely appeal if the plaintiffs were to win at trial.

There are several different forms the settlement could take, depending on how this appeal goes:

  • If the District court ”certifies” all three questions up to the Ninth Circuit for appeal, and the Ninth Circuit accepts at least two of them, Abbott will pay a non-refundable $10 Million in to a settlement fund. That $10M (and possibly more – see below) would eventually be distributed to 13 different non-profit organizations that benefit people with HIV/AIDS. (See a list of those organizations here).
  • How much Abbott would have to pay beyond the initial $10M depends on how the 9th Circuit rules on the appeals questions:
    • If Abbott wins the appeal of any of the three questions before the Ninth Circuit, then it doesn’t pay anything beyond the initial $10M.
    • If the plaintiffs win on all the questions before the 9th Circuit, then Abbott must contribute another $17.5 Million to the settlement fund.
    • If the 9th Circuit “remands” (sends back) the case to the District Court for any reason (such as asking the District Court to make findings of fact), then Abbott must contribute only $4.375 Million more to the settlement fund.

In a nutshell, Abbott will ultimately pay between $10M and $27.5M. After the attorneys’ fees and expenses are paid (approximately 1/3 of the total), here is how the rest of the settlement will be divided:

  • If Abbott wins any one of the questions before the Ninth Circuit, then the $10M, reduced to $6-7 M after costs and attorneys’ fees, will be distributed equally to all the cy pres recipients on the list above.
  • If, however, the court remands any question, or if the Plantiffs win all the questions, then the settlement amount ($14.3M or $27.5M respectively, before legal costs and fees, or between $9.6 and $18.4M after) will be divided, with
    • 70% of it (between $6.7M and $12.8M approximately) going to the 13 organizations described above, and
    • 30% (between $2.9M and $5.5M approximately) going to consumers and TPPs in California)

Confusing? Yes. But the settlement is a creative resolution of the lawsuit. It takes into account the different possible outcomes to a trial and inevitable appeal, and essentially adjusts the amount of the settlement accordingly.

The Court has scheduled a hearing for August 19 on whether to grant “preliminary approval” to the Settlement. If it does grant that approval, notice will be published to alert members of the class about the proposed settlement. Consumers and TPPs that paid for Norvir will have the option of opting out of the settlement (if they want to pursue their own individual lawsuits against Abbott), objecting to the terms of the settlement, and, if they are located in California, filing claims forms to receive a portion of the settlement proceeds. The Court will schedule a Final Approval hearing for several months from now. After that hearing, the Court will decide whether to grant Final Approval to the settlement. If it does grant that approval, and after any appeals, the money in the settlement will be distributed as described above.

To see a copy of the settlement, go here.

Other resources: