The term “whistleblower” generally refers to a person who reports wrongdoing within the company they work for. It’s often used to identify plaintiffs who file qui tam lawsuits under the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to sue companies that defraud the federal government.
A whistleblower has been an instrumental figure in holding institutions accountable to the people since the days of the Roman Republic. The function of whistleblowers is defined by the Latin phrase, “qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur,” meaning “s/he who sues in this matter on behalf of the king as well as him/herself.”
The job of the whistleblower is to assist the government in bringing accountability to institutions and individuals who attempt to commit fraud or otherwise engage in misconduct. In return for this service, whistleblowers receive a portion of any recovery; under some laws, they are also entitled to protection from retaliation by those they help expose.
The first lawsuit filed in the United States on behalf of the government was brought by two officers of the Continental Navy in 1778. Lieutenant Richard Maven and Midshipman Samuel Shaw reported that their commanding officer, Commodore Esek Hopkins, had illegally tortured British prisoners of war. Hopkins retaliated by suing the officers for libel. This led to the first legal protections for whistleblowers.
Today, many whistleblowers who file lawsuits on behalf of the government do so under the False Claims Act, first passed during the American Civil War (and hence known as the “Lincoln Law”). The whistleblower in these cases files what is known as a qui tam claim on behalf of the government; the person who blows the proverbial whistle is known as a relator.
False Claims Act suits most frequently involve companies such as military contractors that may be defrauding the Department of Defense, or health care providers that defraud the Medicare, Medicaid or Tricare programs. In both situations, the dollar amounts in play can be staggering.
To incentivize the whistelblower to take action, the False Claims Act provides that they will be awarded a portion of any money recovered, usually ranging from 15 to 30 percent. Some whistleblowers have earned awards of seven or more figures.
Whistleblower Cases and Settlements
Earlier this year, medical device manufacturer Covidien settled an FCA lawsuit for approximately $17.5 million after the company was exposed by two sales managers for essentially bribing physicians, attempting to get them purchase and use one of its products. It turned out that Covidien treated these doctors to expensive meals and given special seminars on how to attract patients and build their practices. Afterwards, the devices were charged to federal health care programs in California and Florida.
In 2017, Agility Public Warehousing Co., a food supplier to the Department of Defense, was found liable for overcharging the government for produce supplied to troops in the Middle East. The misconduct was reported by a former business partner; Agility wound up paying out $95 million.
How a Qui Tam Attorney Can Help
Under the FCA, the whistleblower, known as the “relator,” is entitled not only to protection, but also to a substantial portion of any recovery — up to 25 percent. Whistleblower lawsuits are complex, however; it can be all too easy to make mistakes, and the relator can wind up paying a heavy price if he or she does not proceed carefully. This is why, before filing a qui tam lawsuit, it is important to have counsel from an attorney familiar with FCA litigation.
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