Botox Maker's Tough-Guy Legal Tactics Against Unemployed Mom Carry a Big PR Risk

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Botox maker Allergan (AGN) has a message for the public: Do not sue us or we will come after you. That's my takeaway from the company's demand of $460,000 in legal fees from an unemployed woman who unsuccesfully sued the company after her 7-year-old daughter (pictured) died following therapeutic Botox injections for her clenched limbs.

It's just the latest move in Allergan's increasingly aggressive legal stance toward its critics. Whether Allergan prevails in court is not the point: Managers would do well to ignore the legal technicalities in favor of watching the PR battle. Allergan is either going to convince observers that its spotless reputation should not be unfairly sullied or it's going to look like a big corporate bully that can't withstand criticism.

Allergan apparently wants to stamp out any suggestion that there's anything wrong with Botox or the way it's marketing the product. Botox has a pretty good reputation for safety, but there have been a small number of suits filed against the company alleging that the product causes debilitating muscle weakness. In 2003, when the wife of Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy sued the company alleging Botox caused her fatigue, Allergan employed PR firm Chandler Chicco which was tasked with ensuring that no science reporters attended the trial. Allergan won the case and the PR battle -- the case was only covered by the non-science press.

More recently, while it was being investigated by the feds for alleged off-label promotion of Botox, Allergan turned around and sued the FDA, alleging that it has a First Amendment right to discuss non-approved uses of the drug -- an unusually ballsy move for a pharmaceutical company. (Download Allergan's complaint here and the FDA's reponse here.)

In the case, Allergan has been joined by conservative legal think tank the Washington Legal Foundation, which has filed an amicus brief supporting Allergan. (The WLF also filed an amicus brief in a different case involving Amgen, continuing the group's status as a stalking horse for drug companies that want the law changed in their favor.)

Recently, the company has seen a number of different threats to the brand emerge. Medicis (MRX) has launched a competing product, Dysport, and the FDA added a black box warning to both drugs. And some of the claims against the company -- such as this lawsuit alleging that Botox parties can spread HIV -- are outlandish enough to grab headlines.

Much is at stake. Allergan makes $1.3 billion a year from Botox.

Allergan has been unusually lucky for a drug company, until now. It's had a years-long monopoly on its product, and seen scads of great press. The company's management is simply not used to weathering the type of public criticism that's routine at, say, Pfizer (PFE) or AstraZeneca (AZN). So it's reached for the nuclear option, suing its critics in the hope that they'll shut up.

In the long run, such moves tend to darken, not help, the reputations of those who try them.

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