BOSTON - Drugmaker AstraZeneca P.L.C. avoided what might have been a $10 billion damages award when a jury found that its payment to Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. to delay a generic version of the top-selling heartburn tablet Nexium was not unreasonably anticompetitive.
The verdict, handed down Friday in Boston federal court, follows a six-week trial in which dozens of wholesalers, drugstore chains and a class of hundreds of thousands of possible individual consumers claimed they were overcharged for years as a result of the "pay-for-delay" deal.
"The jury got it right. The system works," said J. Douglas Baldridge of Venable L.L.P., a lawyer for Ranbaxy.
The trial was the first since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that consumers can sue over deals that call for generic-drug makers to drop patent challenges and hold off on producing cheaper versions in exchange for cash. The nation's top court said such payments cannot be "large and unjustified," meaning the Boston trial was to be the first sign of whether the popular arrangements would be reined in.
The FTC, which filed the case that reached the Supreme Court, has said the disputed accords, also known as reverse payments, cost drug buyers as much as $3.5 billion a year, a figure the industry contests. Forty such deals were reached in fiscal 2012, according to the agency.
United Kingdom-based AstraZeneca has facilities around Philadelphia. India-based Ranbaxy has operations in New Jersey.
While the jury agreed with the contention that the Ranbaxy payment was large and unjustified, it said no when asked whether it was unreasonably anticompetitive.
Thomas Sobol, a lawyer for plaintiffs, declined to comment on the verdict.
One juror, a 54-year-old former federal agent, said he was swayed by defense arguments that the deal was not anticompetitive because no company had the necessary regulatory approval to sell generic Nexium.
"Some of the people said any payoff is a delay, but that's not really true," said the juror, who asked not to be identified by name. "If you don't like the law, get the law changed."
The $10 billion risk estimate in the case assumed generic versions would have been sold starting December 2008, according to Bloomberg Industries analyst Jennifer Rie. Using those figures, overcharges would have been about $3.4 billion, which would be tripled under antitrust law, Rie said.