Three fired Eli Lilly & Co. employees filed a defamation lawsuit against the drug maker Wednesday, saying they were scapegoats in a controversial campaign to revive Prozac sales through unsolicited mailings that were actually backed by management.
Lilly disciplined eight workers, including the three fired employees, in July after investigating unsolicited mailings of the anti-depressant drug to people in south Florida.
The company has apologized for the mailings but said it did not sponsor the program. The lawsuit claims the program had corporate support and at least three earlier mailings were made without complaint or publicity.
Calls to Lilly and senior employees listed in the suit were not returned Wednesday.
Assistant Attorney General John Newton, who is heading a state investigation of the mailings, had no comment Wednesday on the suit, filed in Broward Circuit Court and seeking at least $15,000 in damages.
But Newton said subpoenas turned up evidence of "a corporate-wide, extraordinarily aggressive push" related to Prozac.
The mailings were intended to boost sales by getting Prozac users to switch from a daily pill that lost its patent last year to a weekly patented form, the suit says.
The fired employees were "scapegoats" for the bad publicity generated by the campaign, said the workers' attorney, Mark Gilwit.
The suit claims the Indianapolis-based company encouraged and applauded the so-called conversion program during its development and rollout.
A Lilly employee who helped develop the program was promoted to an executive post as a reward for his work, the suit claims.
The workers suing their old employer are salesman Alex Burlakoff; another sales representative, Frank LaCorte; and former district sales manager Kelly Moore-Martin.
After an in-house review of the mailings, Lilly said it fired, demoted, warned or accepted resignations from three sales managers and five sales representatives.
By Catherine Wilson