When this blogger hears “negligent undertaking,” my mind does not automatically turn to products liability – but rather to pre-teen children. Pre-teen children are at the age where they are asked (actually required) to “undertake” more and more duties and responsibilities. But often these duties are undertaken in a rather haphazard or lackadaisical way that some might say rise to the level of negligence. Dishes with food left on them put back in the cabinet. Wet laundry left in the dryer for more than a day. And as for cleaning up after the dog, well enough said. And as one of the two arbiters of whether such pre-teens have failed to act in good faith, I admit to guilt in an expanding definition of what constitutes negligent undertaking. The New Jersey courts fortunately have stricter and more precise guidelines than mood and level of tolerance on any given day to guide them and those rules led them to dismiss plaintiff’s negligent undertaking claim in Nelson v. Biogen Inc., 2017 WL 1382910 (D.N.J. Apr. 17, 2017).

The product at issue is Tysabri, a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis. Patients who test positive for anti-JC Virus antibodies were shown to be at an increased for developing a certain brain infection with use of the drug. Id. at *1. Plaintiff contracted the infection after being treated with the drug for three years.

It is worth pointing out some of the procedural history here to understand that his was a bit of a hail-Mary by the plaintiffs. Plaintiff’s initial and first amended complaints contained a claim for negligence that was dismissed because in New Jersey the sole remedy for products liability is the New Jersey Product Liability Act (NJPLA). Id. at *2. All products liability claims, except express warranty, are subsumed by the Act. So plaintiff’s second amended complaint alleged design defect and failure to warn under the NJPLA. Defendants moved to dismiss the design defect claim as preempted and plaintiff withdrew the claim before the court could rule on the motion. Id.   Which left plaintiff with only a failure to warn claim in his third amended complaint. After two years of discovery, plaintiff moved to amend his complaint for a fourth time, this time to add a negligent undertaking claim.

The basis for the claim, argued plaintiff, was that defendants had entered into a licensing agreement with the NIH to allow defendants to use the NIH’s JC virus antibody assay to develop the assay for commercial use. The assay would allow doctors to test for the antibodies to determine if their patients were at an increased risk for the brain infection. Id. The licensing agreement was entered into in 2006 and defendants released their JC virus antibody assay in 2012. Plaintiff alleges that when defendants entered into the licensing agreement, they were voluntarily undertaking the duty to develop the assay and that they failed to do so in a reasonable and timely manner. Id. at *3.

First, the court held that this negligent claim, like the negligence claim in plaintiff’s original complaint, was preempted by the exclusivity of the NJPLA. Plaintiff argued that negligent undertaking was different than other negligence claims because it is not based on a pre-existing duty. Not only did plaintiff have no New Jersey or other authority for this argument, it is a distinction without merit. As the court pointed out, “the application of the NJPLA is not premised on the timing of the duties incurred.” Id. at *4. Further, most duties (unlike those in my household) are at some point voluntarily assumed. “For example, before Defendants decided to develop, market, and sell Tysabri, they had no duty to do so. Once Defendants voluntarily decided to produce Tysabri, they then had a duty to act with reasonable care in doing so.” Id. Negligent undertaking is precluded by the NJPLA.

Second, the court found it would be an unprecedented expansion of liability to use negligent undertaking to create third-party negligence obligations to non-parties to the license, or indeed to any contract.  Plaintiff cited no cases in which a party who agreed to a license was held liable for negligent undertaking. Id. at *5. Acknowledging significant policy concerns, the court suggested that the more appropriate way to address issues of the type raised by plaintiff would be to deal with them specifically in the contract. The NIH could have included a time limit by when defendants should have developed the assay or the license would be revoked. Id.

Further, plaintiff failed to allege an essential element of negligent undertaking – reliance. Id. at *6. Plaintiff alleged that his status as a third-party beneficiary to the license agreement satisfied the reliance requirement, but he cited no authority for that proposition. So, closely adhering to the Erie doctrine, the court concluded that “If the courts of New Jersey believe that such an extension is appropriate, then they are in a better position to expand their own common law in the first instance.” Id.

This means plaintiff is back to his third amended complaint – failure to warn only. And as we just reported last week, there is good precedent on the adequacy of the Tysabri warnings and on Wyeth v. Levine preemption. And precedent has much more bearing in the courtroom than in the laundry room – where when prior rulings are cited to the judges they can be summarily ignored with a simple – “that was then, and I’ve changed my mind.”

 

We confess, we can’t think of any good reason for admitting evidence concerning product risks that the plaintiff in a particular case never actually encountered – yet plaintiffs try it with a straight face all the time.  It’s another example of plaintiffs throwing mud against the wall to see if it will stick; anything to divert attention from a weak merits case concerning the injuries actually being claimed.

Sometimes plaintiffs argue that, even though they never encountered a particular risk, it was so severe and downright scary that if they had only been warned about that risk, they wouldn’t have used the product.  Trouble is, while that argument could be causal in a “but for” sense (assuming plaintiffs aren’t lying), it’s not causal in the legal, or proximate, sense.  One of the major tort treatises explains the difference:

More centrally, the injury suffered must be within the class of injury that the warning requirement was meant to avoid.  For example, the plaintiff, if properly warned that asbestos might cause cancer, might have ceased to work around asbestos.  A failure to give such a warning could result in liability if the plaintiff did develop cancer as a result of asbestos exposure.  But the failure to provide such a warning would not result in liability if the plaintiff, not being warned, kept her job and lost a hand in a job-related machine accident.  In that example, failure to warn would be a cause in fact – the plaintiff would have been elsewhere, not working at the machine, if a proper warning had been given – but it is not a proximate legal cause.  It is not, in other words, within the risk that a warning was designed to avoid.

Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, at 1018 (2001).

Federal appellate decisions similarly reject this sort of “causation” over and over, initially in cases involving non-prescription products.  Most commonly, asbestos plaintiffs have been precluded from introducing evidence of cancer when they had no such injury, or even a significant risk.  See O’Banion v. Owens Corning Fiberglass Corp., 968 F.2d 1011, 1013 (10th Cir. 1992) (“evidence of cancer is so prejudicial that in the absence of expert medical testimony that ‘a reasonable degree of medical certainty’ exists that the plaintiff will develop cancer, such evidence should be excluded”) (applying Oklahoma law); Smith v. A.C. & S, Inc., 843 F.2d 854, 859 (5th Cir. 1988) (cancer evidence in non-cancer case “is highly inflammatory and understandably incites the passions and fears of most reasonable individuals”) (applying Louisiana law); Jackson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 750 F.2d 1314, 1321 (5th Cir. 1985) (same) (applying Mississippi law); In re Related Asbestos Cases, 543 F. Supp. 1152, 1160 (N.D. Cal. 1982) (excluding reference to cancer “in any cases in which the plaintiff has not contracted cancer”).

The same result has occurred in automotive product liability.  For example, in Kane v. Ford Motor Co., 450 F.2d 315 (3d Cir. 1971), the plaintiff started out claiming one type of brake defect in a car, but then shifted to a different defect claim at trial.  The Third Circuit affirmed exclusion of such evidence, because it was “irrelevant to appellant’s theory of the case.”  Id. at 316.  See Fields v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 555 P.2d 48, 58 (Okla. 1976) (excluding recall where “the defect mentioned in the recall letter is not the defect claimed to have cause the [plaintiff’s injury]”); Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., 988 F.2d 573, 578-80 (5th Cir. 1993) (affirming exclusion of five other incidents that different car models and different claims of mechanical defect); Olson v. Ford Motor Co., 410 F. Supp. 2d 869, 873-75 (D.N.D. 2006) (excluding automotive recalls where the reason for recall differed from plaintiff’s alleged product defect); Jordan v. General Motors Corp., 624 F. Supp. 72, 77 (E.D. La. 1985) (same).

But we’re more interested in prescription medical product liability litigation.

In our sandbox, the New York Court of Appeals rejected failure to warn of risks the plaintiff had not suffered in Martin v. Hacker, 628 N.E.2d 1308 (N.Y. 1993), where the plaintiff claimed that a drug should have been contraindicated in patients with a history of depression – but personally had no history of depression.  “Since it is undisputed that [plaintiff] had no history of mental depression, we are not concerned with the adequacy of the Contraindications section of the insert.  Id. at 1313. See McFadden v. Haritatos, 448 N.Y.S.2d 79, 81 (N.Y.A.D. 1982) (“Since there was no showing” that plaintiff “had a history of that condition,” the allegedly inadequate warnings “are not applicable”).

Other state appellate courts agree.  A Texas appellate court in Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc. v. Meyer, 249 S.W.3d 513 (Tex. App. 2007), entered judgment n.o.v. on a warning claim, where the prescriber knew of the risk that the plaintiff encountered − rejecting allegations of inadequate warnings about diabetes (“[n]othing in the record suggests that [plaintiff] was diabetic”), and several general surgical risks (“[a]ssuming that the general . . . risk factors . . . could form the basis of an appropriate warning, there is no evidence that the lack of such a warning caused [plaintiff’s] injury”).  Id. at 519.

In King v. Danek Medical, Inc., 37 S.W.3d 429 (Tenn. App. 2000), one of Bexis’ Bone Screw cases, the plaintiffs’ expert attempted to opine about a condition that the plaintiffs did not have.  Same result:

[Plaintiffs’ expert] did not attempt to testify that either [plaintiff] developed [that condition] as the result of their implants. . . .  The theoretical possibility that some [products] of other manufacturers can cause various bone problems, without proof that it occurred to these plaintiffs because of the products of these defendants, cannot defeat summary judgment.

Id. at 446-47.

Likewise, in Peterson v. Parke Davis & Co., 705 P.2d 1001 (Colo. App. 1985), the court affirmed rejection of a proposed jury instruction that would have required the defendant to warn about every possible drug risk:

[T]he request for an instruction that [defendant] had a duty to warn of all known dangers was properly denied.  In a failure to warn case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the manufacturer gave inadequate warning of the danger which caused the injury.

Id. at 1004.

Here in Pennsylvania, plaintiffs tried warning claims about the risk of injuries they never suffered in both the breast implant and fen-phen mass torts – failing both times.  In fen-phen litigation, plaintiffs alleging primary pulmonary hypertension (“PPH”) were precluded from arguing that better warnings about valvular heart disease (“VHD”) (and vice versa) would have made a difference, even when a prescriber would not have been deterred by better warnings about the injury (PPH) the plaintiff actually had:

In these circumstances, the relationship between the legal wrong (the failure to disclose the risk of VHD) and the injury (PPH) is not directly correlative and is too remote for proximate causation.  Therefore, as a matter of law, there is no proximate, causal connection between [defendant’s] failure to disclose the risk of VHD and [plaintiff’s] specific injury.

Cochran v. Wyeth, Inc., 3 A.3d 673, 681 (Pa. Super. 2010); accord Owens v. Wyeth, 2009 WL 3244890, at ??? (C.P. Phila. Co. Aug. 17, 2009) (“the only warnings properly at issue in a failure to warn case are those relating to the condition to which the plaintiff alleges to have suffered”), aff’d mem., 6 A.3d 572 (table), 2010 WL 2965014, at *5-6 (Pa. Super. 2010) (adopting trial court’s reasoning).

Likewise, in breast implant litigation, the Pennsylvania mass tort court held that liability for inadequate warnings about risks not encountered was too broad to be permitted:

If I accept plaintiffs’ argument, the law will be permitting recovery for a risk that the plaintiff assumed because the plaintiff might have made a different decision as a result of knowing of other risks for which the plaintiff did not experience any harm.

In re Silicone Breast Implant Litigation, 64 D. & C. 4th 21, 25-26 (C.P. Allegheny Co. 2003).  Recovery for warnings about risks that never happened “would have a reach that extends far beyond the purposes for the [duty to warn] doctrine.”  Id. at 26.

The same has proven true with mass torts in other state courts.  In re NuvaRing Litigation, 2013 WL 1874321, at *23 (N.J. Super. Law Div. April 18, 2013) (“any failure to notify the FDA of increased [other] risks would not affect the adequacy of the warning with respect to the . . . cause of [plaintiff’s] death”); Hedrick v. Genentech Inc., 2011 WL 5902794, at ??? (Cal. Super. Oct. 20, 2011) (“liability should be limited when a plaintiff does not suffer the unwarned-of injury”) (applying Massachusetts law).

In federal court, the plaintiffs in Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, 283 F.3d 315, 321 (5th Cir. 2002) (applying Texas law), “never assert[ed] that they were part of a risk group that should have been warned.”  Id. at 321.  Their warning claims were therefore “absurd”:

To find causation, we would have to infer the absurd − for example, that an extra warning, though inapplicable to [the lead plaintiff], might have scared her and her doctor from [the drug].  Such reasoning is too speculative to establish Article III standing.

Id.

In Eck v. Parke, Davis & Co., 256 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 2001) (applying Oklahoma law), the plaintiff alleged that his prescriber “would have read and heeded a warning” about not to prescribe two drugs together.  Turns out that didn’t happen.  The other drug was prescribed later by somebody else.  The warning to the first prescriber had nothing to do with plaintiff’s eventual injury.  Therefore, no causation as a matter of law:

[I]t is undisputed that [plaintiff] did not ingest the [two drugs] concomitantly . . . until . . . his prescribing physician was [somebody else]. . . .  That [the first prescriber] might have heeded a warning. . .about possible adverse effects were he to prescribe [the two drugs together] is of no significance given the facts before us.

Id. at 1020.

In Mills v. United States, 764 F.2d 373 (5th Cir. 1985) (applying Louisiana law), the adverse reaction that the plaintiff suffered was the subject of thorough warnings – so plaintiff claimed that warnings about other conditions were inadequate.  The court held that, since, plaintiff didn’t have those injuries the alleged lack of warnings about them were irrelevant.

The question of the adequacy of the warnings must be confined to consideration of whether the warnings were sufficient to inform the plaintiff of the risk of the particular condition or disease which allegedly caused his injury or death. . . .  [A] determination that warnings were inadequate with respect to some other condition does not bear on our conclusion that [plaintiff] was adequately informed of the risk of severe allergic reaction to the swine flu vaccine.

Id. at 379.

Likewise, in Novak v. United States, 865 F.2d 718 (6th Cir. 1989) (applying Ohio law), the plaintiff lacked any scientific evidence that the product could cause her condition, and therefore claimed inadequate warnings about a different risk she never suffered.  Amazingly, the district court allowed the switch.  The court of appeals did not, and reversed:

There was, therefore, no reason for the defendant to make the references deemed important or vital by the district court, and there was no duty on the part of the defendant to warn about any of these conditions.  Particularly, the district court erred in finding the warning inadequate, negligent, and insufficient because it did not specifically caution those who may have experienced [the other condition].  It was not proven that [plaintiff] had actually suffered from [that condition]. . . .

Id. at 726.  See In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices & Products Liability Litigation, 639 Fed. Appx. 874, 879 n.8 (3d Cir. 2016) (expert opinion had “no impact” on causation when based on a study that “dealt with a population of which [plaintiff] was not a part”) (applying Pennsylvania law); Coursen v. A.H. Robins Co., 764 F.2d 1329, 1336 (9th Cir. 1985) (“collateral misconduct unrelated to the specific injury suffered by the plaintiffs” properly excluded) (applying Oregon law).

Numerous other cases have reached the same conclusion. In Stahl v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 2000 WL 33915848 (E.D. La. Nov. 29, 2000), aff’d, 283 F.3d. 254 (5th Cir. 2002), the plaintiff’s prescriber knew all about the drug’s alleged risks that he suffered.  Id. at *4.  Thus, plaintiff alleged inadequate warnings about other more serious conditions that he didn’t have.  Summary judgment granted:

[T]his Court is unpersuaded by [plaintiff’s] complaints that the warnings did not warn of death, liver failure, and the need for transplant.  [Plaintiff] has not suffered any of those injuries and is, therefore, precluded from imposing a duty to warn regarding those injuries not suffered. . . .  [A] claimant cannot seek to impose a duty to warn on a manufacturer of damage not sustained.

Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).  See also Vakil v. Merck & Co., 2016 WL 7175638, at *6 (D.N.J. Dec. 7, 2016) (“Defendants cannot be held accountable for failing to warn Plaintiff of a symptom he never experienced”); Guidry v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2016 WL 633673, at *4 (E.D. La. Feb. 17, 2016) (“The only specific . . . that supports the plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claim is that the FDA issued a safety announcement warning [about] ketoacidosis. But the plaintiff does not allege (at least coherently) that she ever suffered from ketoacidosis”; warning claim dismissed); Stephens v. Teva Pharmaceuticals, U.S.A., Inc., 2013 WL 12149265, at *3 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 31, 2013) (“warnings for a wide range of conditions from which decedent did not allegedly suffer . . . would not have had any effect on him”; motion to dismiss granted); Austin v. Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corp., 2013 WL 5406589, at *7 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 25, 2013) (“Plaintiff failed to state a claim for the failure to warn of side effects which Plaintiff did not suffer”); Harris v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2012 WL 6732725, at *3 (N.D. Ohio Dec. 28, 2012) (“For a plaintiff to succeed on an inadequate warning claim, the risk about which the manufacturer allegedly failed to warn must be the same risk which harmed the plaintiff.”) (following Ohio Rev. Code §2307.76(A)(1)); Tolliver v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2012 WL 3074538, at *4 (N.D. Ohio July 30, 2012) (same); Mason v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 2010 WL 2697173, at *5 n.3 (C.D. Ill. July 7, 2010) (“a warning is only inadequate if it fails to list risks or side effects that do occur”); Harrington v. Biomet, Inc., 2008 WL 2329132, at *6 (W.D. Okla. June 3, 2008) (“no evidence” that two allegedly inadequate warnings caused plaintiff’s alleged injuries; summary judgment granted); Hernandez v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 200 F.R.D. 285, 295 (S.D. Tex. 2001) (dismissing plaintiffs who “do not plead that the[ir] children suffered any injuries or side effects of which [defendant] allegedly failed to warn”) (applying Texas law).

We’ve observed many times that multi-district litigation all too often becomes a breeding ground for bogus claims, and warning claims asserting injuries that plaintiffs don’t actually have is no exception.  Plaintiffs in Pelvic Mesh litigation have repeatedly advanced similar bogus warning claims based on risks they had not encountered, and lost each time.  The MDL judge granted an in limine motion against such evidence in Tyree v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2014 WL 5445769 (S.D.W. Va. Oct. 22, 2014):

I agree that evidence of complications that no plaintiff experienced is irrelevant and lacking in probative value. For the claims that require evidence of injury (strict liability for failure to warn, strict liability for design defect, and negligence), only the injuries experienced by the complainant are relevant.  Strict liability . . . requires the plaintiff to show . . . that the defect was the probable cause of her injuries. . . .  [E]vidence that the [the product] causes injuries not experienced by the plaintiffs has little probative value.  Moreover, elaborating on injuries that the plaintiffs did not incur risks needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Id. at *6 (citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis original).  Accord Hall v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2015 WL 856786, at *5 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 27, 2015) (“Evidence of complications that the plaintiff has not experienced is irrelevant and lacking in probative value.  For the claims that require evidence of injury, only the injuries experienced by the complainant are relevant.”) (applying Wisconsin law); Eghnayem v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2014 WL 5465741, at *7 (W.D. Va. Oct. 28, 2014) (same) (applying Florida law); In re Ethicon Pelvic Repair Systems Products Liability Litigation, 2014 WL 505234, at *10 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 5, 2014) (excluding purported cancer risk where plaintiff “does not have cancer or allege any injuries related to an increased risk of cancer”) (applying Texas law); In re Ethicon Pelvic Repair Systems Products Liability Litigation, 2014 WL 457544, at *2 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 3, 2014) (“secondary infections were not ‘a fact in issue’ because [plaintiff] did not experience a secondary infection”) (applying Texas law).

Other MDL cases reaching the same result include:

In re Xarelto (Rivaroxaban) Products Liability Litigation, 2017 WL 1352860, at *4, 7 (E.D. La. April 13, 2017) (excluding expert testimony about cancer where “cancer was not an issue for either Plaintiff”) (defense testimony); Solomon v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 916 F. Supp.2d 556, 564 (D.N.J. 2013) (“Plaintiff, however, did not suffer from transient ischemic stroke.  Thus, this study is irrelevant to Plaintiff’s claim”) (applying Texas law); Carr-Davis v. Bristol Myers-Squibb Co., 2013 WL 322616, at *5 (D.N.J. Jan. 28, 2013) (“because the studies are not relevant to Decedent’s condition, then the failure to inform the physicians of such findings cannot establish causation”) (applying Missouri law); Cooper v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2013 WL 85291, at *6 n.11 (D.N.J. Jan. 7, 2013) (plaintiff “does not link those potential warnings to his personal circumstances”) (applying Alabama law); Thrope v. Davol, Inc., 2011 WL 470613, at *32 (D.R.I. Feb. 4, 2011) (“[n]othing in [the surgeon’s] account indicates that he handled the [product] in a manner that [defendant] failed to warn against”; judgment as a matter of law granted) (applying North Carolina law); In re Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, 2010 WL 1257299, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. March 26, 2010) (“Plaintiff cannot establish proximate cause without evidence [of a] failure to warn of the specific risk that allegedly materialized”) (applying Florida law); In re Rezulin Products Liability Litigation, 331 F. Supp.2d 196, 200-01 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (alleged inadequate warning about risk plaintiff did not suffer held “quite beside the point”; “95 percent of the patients who took [the drug] suffered no liver injury” so “there is no evidence from which a trier of fact reasonably could conclude that these plaintiffs’ treating physicians would not have prescribed Rezulin even if plaintiffs are right as to the warning concerning liver toxicity”); In re Rezulin Products Liability Litigation, 2004 WL 1802960, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2004) (“these plaintiffs do not claim to have suffered any liver injury” so “that there may have been a breach of the duty to warn of liver toxicity for which patients suffering from liver dysfunction may recover does not avail these plaintiffs”) (footnotes omitted), vacated in part on other grounds, 2004 WL 2009445 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 8, 2004) (applying Mississippi and Texas law); Greiner v. Medical Engineering Corp., 99 F. Supp.2d 759 (W.D. La. 2000) (breast implants; “[a] claimant cannot seek to impose a duty to warn on a manufacturer of damage not sustained”), aff’d, 243 F.3d 200 (5th Cir. 2001); In re Norplant Contraceptive Products Liability Litigation, 1997 WL 81094, at *1 (E.D. Tex. Feb. 21, 1997) (“whether the [product] warnings were not adequate with respect to an injury not alleged is not relevant to whether physicians were adequately warned of Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries”).

Punitive Damages

Finally, one other argument that plaintiffs sometime advance about alleged failures to warn of risks that they didn’t actually encounter is that such non-causal failures to warn are relevant to “punitive damages.”

We don’t think so, and this time the argument is constitutionally based. Evidence of inadequate warnings about risks not encountered by plaintiffs is solely relevant to injuries suffered (if at all) by persons other than the plaintiff who is before the court.  That’s a punitive damages no-no.

In considering punitive damages, the United States Supreme Court first held:

A defendant’s dissimilar acts, independent from the acts upon which liability was premised, may not serve as the basis for punitive damages. . . .  Due process does not permit courts, in the calculation of punitive damages, to adjudicate the merits of other parties’ hypothetical claims against a defendant under the guise of the reprehensibility analysis.”

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 422-23 (2003).

A few years later, the Court decided that, “[t]o permit punishment for injuring a nonparty victim would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damages equation.”  Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 354 (2007).  Williams therefore flatly declared it unconstitutional to base punitive damages on allegations of harm to absent third parties (such as other people suffering different injuries):

We did not previously hold explicitly that a jury may not punish for the harm caused others. But we do so hold now. . . .  [W]e believe the Due Process Clause prohibits a State’s inflicting punishment for harm caused strangers to the litigation.

Id. at 357.  Thus, “it is particularly important that States avoid procedure that unnecessarily deprives juries of proper legal guidance.  Id. at 355.  It is “constitutionally important” to insure that “the jury will ask the right question, not the wrong one.”  Id.

[W]here the risk of. . .misunderstanding is a significant one – because, for instance, of the sort of evidence that was introduced at trial or the kinds of argument the plaintiff made to the jury – a court, upon request, must protect against that risk.  Although the States have some flexibility. . ., federal constitutional law obligates them to provide some form of protection in appropriate cases.

Id. at 357 (emphasis added).

Admission of warning/risk evidence beyond that involving the plaintiff in question constitutes a state-law “procedure” doing the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court required in Williams.  With respect to punitive damages, such evidence is inherently suspect because by definition it places before the jury “injury . . . inflict[ed] upon those who are, essentially, strangers to the litigation.”  Id. at 353.

In Skibniewski v. American Home Products Corp., 2004 WL 5628157 (W.D. Mo. April 1, 2004), after State Farm, but before Williams, the court excluded evidence of “any alleged side effect or risk of the products at tissue other than the side effect or risks that allegedly harmed plaintiff” both generally, and in response to a punitive damages argument.  Id. at *12-13.

[F]ailure to warn of a medical condition plaintiff does not have cannot serve as the basis of a failure to warn claim and . . . evidence regarding injuries plaintiff does not have is irrelevant.  Because plaintiff does not have [certain conditions], evidence of these should be excluded.

Id. at *7. See Ray v. Allergan, Inc., 863 F. Supp.2d 552, 565 (E.D. Va. 2012) (punitive damages argument based on all persons taking a drug for a condition, regardless of injury, required new trial under Williams); Schilf v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2010 WL 3909909, at *6 (D.S.D. Sept. 30, 2010) (evidence about a different drug “are irrelevant to Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages” under Williams); In re Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, 647 F. Supp.2d 265, 284-85 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (conduct occurring after a plaintiff’s injury cannot be used to support punitive damages under Williams); In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation, 2007 WL 4189510, at *3 (Mag. E.D. Ark. Nov. 15, 2007), adopted, 2007 WL 4189497 (E.D. Ark. Nov. 21, 2007) (under Williams evidence “will not be permitted to testify regarding [defendant’s] general badness or badness in the specific areas which are not connected to [plaintiff’s] injury”). See also Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 701 S.E.2d 5, 24 (S.C. 2010) (punitive damages theory that “invited the jury to punish [defendant] for all [product-related] deaths and injuries, rather than the “harm to [plaintiff],” was improper under Williams); Pedroza v. Lomas Auto Mall, Inc., 2009 WL 1300944, at *4-5 (D.N.M. April 2, 2009) (conduct occurring after a plaintiff’s injury cannot be used to support punitive damages under Williams) (non-product liability case); Berardi v. Village of Sauget, 2008 WL 2782925, at *5-6 (S.D. Ill. July 17, 2008) (other allegedly similar incidents could not be admitted to prove punitive damages) (non-product liability case).

So there you have it.  Evidence of alleged product defects, that did not give rise to the harm that the plaintiff actually encountered, should be irrelevant and inadmissible in product liability litigation, no matter what the rationale offered for their admissions.  Such evidence is a smoke screen and a side show offered when a plaintiff is trying to distract attention from a lousy liability case.

Charges of discovery abuse get thrown around frequently in product liability litigation.  We have not done a scientific survey, but we guess that such charges are levied against the manufacturer defendants more often than against individual plaintiffs.  For one thing, seeking burdensome discovery, and then discovery on discovery, has been in the product liability plaintiff game plan for a long time.  There also tends to be more discovery that a defendant could produce—and, therefore, be accused on wrongfully withholding—than a plaintiff could produce.  There is also the practical consideration that large manufacturers tend to have the financial wherewithal to pay fees when ordered and contingency plaintiffs do not—although the lawyers who front the money for those plaintiffs and make the decisions about how to proceed in discovery typically do.  While there are occasions where courts require plaintiffs and their lawyers to pay substantial defense costs because of bad conduct in discovery or in the litigation more broadly, an argument about how to calculate fees to be awarded for discovery abuse is something that we generally hope to avoid.  It is not quite up there with arguing about the maximum acceptable ratio of punitive to compensatory damages that can be awarded, but it still makes us a little uncomfortable.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 581 U.S. __ (2017), slip op., involves a very large award of fees based on the district court’s conclusion that the manufacturer defendant in a product liability case had intentionally withheld important internal testing documents.  The plaintiffs did not learn about the documents until after they had settled, when a reference appeared in a newspaper article about another similar case.  Because the case had resolved, the late application to shift costs and fees appealed to the court’s inherent authority.  Using that authority, the court not only determined that the defendant had engaged in bad faith discovery for years, but that it should pay the plaintiff $2.7 million for all costs and fees since the initial “dishonest discovery response.” Slip op. at 3.  It specifically determined that egregious conduct by a party negates the typical requirement that fees be limited to those caused by the sanctionable conduct. Id. As a back-up in case the Court of Appeals reduced the award, the court determined that the costs and fees excluding what plaintiffs estimated they incurred in pursuing other defendants and in proving medical damages, would be $2 million. Id. at 4.  (We find the whole concept of the fees incurred in the context of a presumably contingency fee representation somewhat bizarre.  Did the plaintiffs’ lawyers actually charge more than $2.7 million in costs and fees to their clients when the proceeds of the settlement(s) were divided up?)  The Court of Appeals affirmed the full amount and the Supreme Court granted cert.

The Haeger Court started by distinguishing between sanctions that compensate and sanctions that punish.  The latter can only be awarded if the trial court provides the “procedural guarantees applicable in criminal cases, such as a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard of proof.” Id.at 6 (citation omitted).  (As an aside, we are not sure that each state requires such a standard of proof when punitive damages are offered, so maybe this Court would be strict in its evaluation of punitive damages.)  “When (as in this case) those criminal-type protections are missing, a court’s shifting of fees is limited to reimbursing the victim.” Id. Damages to reimburse must have been caused by the sanctionable conduct, not merely come after it started.

The court’s fundamental job is to determine whether a given legal fee—say, for taking a deposition or drafting a motion—would or would not have been incurred in the absence of the sanctioned conduct. The award is then the sum total of the fees that, except for the misbehavior, would not have occurred.

Id. at 7-8 (citation omitted).  The court has some leeway in making large sanction award as long as the touchstone is causation.  A plaintiff can be hit for all costs of a defending case initiated in “complete bad faith,” such as we have seen relatively recently. Id. at 8.  Sanctions can also be based on the court’s assessment of whether failure to disclose “evidence fatal to its position” affected the timing (but not amount) of settlement. Id. at 8-9.

In Haeger, the trial court did not apply a but-for causation test to its damages calculation, so it will have to do it over with the right standard (unless it determines that there was some sort of waiver).  While we do not know what the amount of the sanction will be on remand, we do have an inkling that the damages imposed for discovery misconduct will tend to be less if the Haeger standards are followed in other cases.  In a case where a fundamental lie by the plaintiff—claiming to have used the defendant’s product, claiming legal authority to initiate a suit, claiming no knowledge of the injury or its cause until shortly before bringing suit—caused a case to be brought or stick around, some bold judges can still impose significant sanctions following Haeger’s principles.

 

Just yesterday we made the following observation: a design defect claim is often a make-weight claim. How should the design have been improved? Not selling the product at all is hardly a design improvement. An entirely different product is not a safer alternative under the law of any enlightened state. Changing the molecule or the device design cannot be done without FDA approval, so preemption should apply (even if courts often miss this point).

And miss the point the court did in In re: Xarelto Prods. Liab. Litig., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56629 (E.D. La. Apr. 12, 2017). Plaintiffs in the Xarelto MDL allege that the anti-coagulant drug caused serious bleeding events and that the drug was unreasonably dangerous due to its defective design. Id. at *3. As we noted yesterday, true design claims, as opposed to failure to warn claims, aren’t the crux of most pharmaceutical drug cases. But the Xarelto plaintiffs went that route and so defendants raised preemption as a defense. Unfortunately, to no avail.

Xarelto is an anti-coagulant drug that is taken once a day and all patients are given the same dosage without the need for routine monitoring. Id. Plaintiffs argue that patients’ reactions to the drug vary causing some to experience bleeding complications. Id. at *3-4. It is undisputed that both the dosing and monitoring specifications were approved by the FDA. Id. at *4. So, if the FDA approved the design, what do plaintiffs say the manufacturer could have done differently? Essentially, plaintiffs’ position boils down to the manufacturer should not have sold Xarelto but should have developed and sought FDA approval of a different product. Wait. We’ve been down this road before and the Supreme Court found such claims preempted. Mutual Pharm. Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S. Ct. 2466 (2013).

Before we get to Bartlett, let’s look at the specific design defects plaintiffs alleged in this case. First, the manufacturer should have designed an assay to allow doctors to monitor the effects of the drug on each patient. Second, the manufacturer should also have designed and marketed an antidote to counteract a major bleeding event. Third, in the absence of the first two, the manufacturer should have warned about the availability of other tests to measure anticoagulation. Id. Putting aside failure to warn, a claim that the manufacturer should have submitted a different version of the drug to the FDA for approval is the functional equivalent of the “stop-selling” claim that the Court found preempted in Bartlett.

Now that we are back to Bartlett, we should point out that the Xarelto court wrongly discounts defendants’ reliance on it, saying that it relates to generic drug manufacturers, not name brand manufacturers. Id. at *7-8. While it is true that that drug at issue in Bartlett was a generic, the rulings are in Bartlett are not so limited, and certainly not on the very issue germane to this case. The Court in Bartlett went out of its way to state, “[o]nce a drug − whether generic or brand-name − is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to the ‘qualitative or quantitative formulation of the drug product, including active ingredients, or in the specifications.’” 133 S. Ct. at 2471 (quoting 21 C.F.R. §314.70(b)(2)(i)) (emphasis added). Instead the Xarelto court, in its discussion of design defect, relies more on Wyeth v. Levine, using that decision on failure to warn claims to suggest that preemption is not as clear for brand manufacturers. But the distinction between Bartlett and Wyeth isn’t that one involved a generic and one involved a brand. It’s that Bartlett dealt with design defect and the court’s failure to follow the preemptive logic of Bartlett in this context is an error – at least in our books.

The way the court appears to get around Bartlett is by drawing an artificial distinction between “pre-approval” and “post-approval” design defect claims. Id. at *10. But, as noted above a pre-approval design defect claim is the same thing as saying the manufacturer should stop selling the current product – that it never should have been brought to market. But it was. And only after the FDA reviewed and approved it, including its dosage and monitoring specifications. A design defect claim is about whether the product at issue – the one that was sold and marketed and used by plaintiffs – was defectively designed and whether there is a feasible alternative design. By focusing on the “pre-approval” time period, the court is basically inviting the jury to second guess the FDA’s approval of the drug — a question clearly not meant for a jury. If the court had focused on the “post-approval” product, the actual product at issue, the design defect claims would fall squarely into Bartlett preemption.

But the court didn’t and so we add this to the list of cases that simply miss the point.

 

However a drug/device product liability is styled, it will almost always be focused on a claim of failure to warn.  Why do plaintiffs insist on inserting a cause of action for manufacturing liability when there is not a whiff of evidence that anything went wrong on the production line?  Seldom do we see the pharma equivalent of a mouse in the Coke bottle or, thinking of a more recent case, a bat in the salad.  Similarly, a design defect claim is often a make-weight claim.  How should the design have been improved?  Not selling the product at all is hardly a design improvement.  An entirely different product is not a safer alternative under the law of any enlightened state.  Changing the molecule or the device design cannot be done without FDA approval, so preemption should apply (even if courts often miss this point).  No, failure to warn is where the action is.  In the wake of Wyeth v. Levine, it seemed that preemption would be a tough row to hoe in such cases, but keep hoeing that row because the preemption defense might still be available – as a motion to dismiss, summary judgment motion, directed verdict, or argument to the jury.

 

The recent case of Amos v. Biogen Idec, Inc. et al., 2017 WL 1316968 (W.D.N.Y. April 10, 2017), makes every one of these points for us.  The court granted summary judgment to the defendants in that case, holding that all of the claims were fundamentally about failure to warn, the warning was adequate as a matter of law, and the FDA’s earlier rejection of proposed warnings meant that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted.  The facts of Amos present the sort of situation defendants encounter all too often, but which make for a hard sell to a jury: something very sad happened to an innocent patient, but it was nobody’s fault.  The patient had Multiple Sclerosis too severe to respond well to the usual treatments.  Her doctor recommended Tysabri.  That medicine came with a black box warning that it might increase the risk of Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (“PML”), a viral infection of the brain that is as incurable as MS is.  The patient eventually contracted PML and died.  Her estate filed a lawsuit that included claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty. 

 

From the recital of facts in the Amos case, it appears that the manufacturer of Tysabri was quite diligent and proactive.  It also appears that the defense attorneys did an excellent job of mining the administrative record.  The manufacturer continued to perform clinical trials after initial approval, and promptly alerted the FDA of whatever risks it observed.  Among other things, the company asked the FDA to add information in the label about screening for certain virus antibodies that might increase the risk of PML.  The FDA rejected this proposal a couple of times, finding insufficient evidence at those times to support the label change.  The FDA ultimately relented and approved a label change in 2012 – after the plaintiff’s decedent died.

 

In considering the defense motion for summary judgment, the court concluded that all of the plaintiff’s claims turned on the sufficiency of the warnings.  New York law applied, and there was ample precedent under New York law that adequate warnings precluded claims for negligence, strict liability, breach of warranties, or fraud.  What’s more, the learned intermediary applied to claims regarding prescription drug warnings, and the record was replete with evidence that the prescribing doctor was well aware of the increased risk of  PMI.  It certainly helped the defense that the defendant, in collaboration with the FDA, had created a program called Tysabri Outreach: Unified Commitment to Health (“TOUCH”), which required that, prior to prescribing Tysabri, a physician had to acknowledge in writing that he/she understood the risks of PML and obtained a written acknowledgment from the patient that the patient understands the PML risk. The existence of the TOUCH program was one of several facts that made Amos a hard case for the plaintiff to win.

 

Even so, we all know that no matter how comprehensive and informative a warning label is, a good plaintiff lawyer can flyspeck it and find, or make up, some gaps.  The plaintiff lawyers in the Amos case are well known to us, and are very, very good.  They argued that the Tysabri warnings were inadequate because they failed to include information regarding the correlation between the virus antibodies and PML, and failed to inform doctors of the risks associated with duration of treatment and prior treatment with an immunosuppressant.  To our eyes, the plaintiff lawyers made the best arguments they could.  In too many courts, such an argument would furnish enough of a crutch for a plaintiff-leaning (or lazy-leaning) judge to mutter ‘factual dispute’ and deny the motion in a post-card ruling.  But not this court.  The judge analyzed New York law and held that even without the details regarding specific risk factors, “when read as a whole, the warnings unmistakably conveyed the seriousness of PML and its association with Tysabri treatment.”  That “read as a whole” point is important.  Do not let a court tell you that it is the jury’s duty to read the warnings as a whole.  It is the court’s job to assess whether the warning is adequate as a matter of law, and plaintiff post hoc fly-specking should not be enough to plant a case in front of twelve citizens good and true (and half-asleep and inflamed with sympathy and anti-corporate hatred).    

 

Even aside from the conclusion that the Tysabri warnings were adequate as a matter of law, the court offered an alternative basis for dismissing the case:  the claims were preempted as a matter of law.  Wyeth v. Levine ruled against preemption on the (at least partially specious) ground that drug companies can unilaterally ramp up warnings through the Changes Being Effected (“CBE”) process.  But the Amos court accurately observed that CBE is not available in all situations, and definitely is not available to add or change a black box warning, which is what was at issue in this Tysabri case.  Moreover, “the evidence of record leads inescapably to the conclusion that the FDA would not have approved a change to Tysabri’s label prior to 2012.”  With respect to Tysabri, there were two “smoking gun” rejections from the FDA. 

 

Also notable in Amos:  a second defendant in the case, a distributor of Tysabri, received summary judgment on preemption grounds.  The distributor did not own the drug’s New Drug Application, and thus had no power under the FDA scheme to alter warnings in any way.  The distributor’s inability to act independently to change warnings meant that, under the Mensing and Bartlett decisions, all claims against it were preempted.

 

There have been other cases around the country where courts arrived at similar rulings that Tysabri warnings were adequate as a matter of law and that failure to warn claims were preempted.  Perhaps plaintiff lawyers will do their best to distinguish these cases on their facts.  We will, doubtless, hear that “smoking gun” has become the standard for the Wyeth v. Levine “clear evidence” standard. We heard something nearly as silly from our home appellate court recently.  But reading the Amos case in the same way that the Amos court read the Tysabri label – as a whole – there is an awful lot of comfort in that case for drug and device defendants.

   

 

Today’s guest post is from friend-of-the-blog Sarah Bunce, a partner at Tucker Ellis.  It’s about the 8th Circuit finally having before it aspects of the effects of the current, bizarrely applied Missouri joinder and venue rules (see here) on federal jurisdiction.  Not only is it about time, though, it may be past time.  By the time that the 8th Circuit gets around to deciding the case, either (1) the Missouri Supreme Court might have overturned the current reading of those rules, (2) the United States Supreme Court may held the exercise of personal jurisdiction allowed by those rules unconstitutional, or (3) the Missouri legislature might have rewritten the rules to eliminate the basis for the current bizarre judicial rule constructions.  But, in any event, that there’s finally movement on another piece of the litigation puzzle.

As always, our guest poster is entitled to 100% of the credit, and any blame, for what follows.

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While most of us wait anxiously for the Supreme Court to hear the issue of litigation tourism at the end of this month in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, the Eighth Circuit got a sneak peek on April 5 when it heard oral argument in Robinson v. Pfizer Inc.  Although the Eighth Circuit may well defer decision until the Supreme Court decides the issue, the background of this case and its potential impact on the future of litigation tourism in the Eighth Circuit—particularly in the Eastern District of Missouri—is worth noting.

For those of us who have attempted to remove multi-plaintiff “litigation tourist” complaints from the City of St. Louis to the Eastern District of Missouri, the Eastern District’s response is all too familiar. With the exception of the faint glimmer of hope from Judge Webber in Addelson v. Sanofi S.A., 2016 WL 6216124 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 25, 2016), the court has been rather hostile to such removals, swiftly remanding case after case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The decision in Robinson v. Pfizer Inc. is no exception.  There, sixty-four plaintiffs (only four of whom were Missouri residents) joined in filing suit against Pfizer Inc. in the City of St. Louis alleging injuries as a result of ingesting Lipitor.  As any defendant would do, Pfizer removed the case to the Eastern District of Missouri.  Pfizer argued, under Ruhrgas, the court should first decide personal jurisdiction and dismiss the out-of-state plaintiffs for lack of personal jurisdiction, which would result in complete diversity between the remaining parties.  Pfizer also argued that even if the court considered subject matter jurisdiction first, there would be diversity in light of the fraudulent joinder of the out-of-state plaintiffs.

In granting plaintiffs’ motion for remand, the Robinson court would hear none of it.  Skipping directly to the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, the court (incorrectly) characterized Pfizer’s argument as one based on fraudulent misjoinder rather than fraudulent joinder.  Ignoring entirely the issue of whether there was personal jurisdiction over defendant to support each individual plaintiff’s claims, the court instead viewed the “real issue” to be whether plaintiffs’ claims were properly joined under Rule 20.  Finding the joinder of all sixty-four plaintiffs’ claims proper, the court ordered the case remanded to state court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

As those of us who have tried (and failed) to successfully remove multi-plaintiff complaints to the Eastern District of Missouri are keenly aware, this is where the story usually ends. Because these remand orders are not appealable, we’re stuck in an infinite loop of removing cases and being remanded, hoping that the next time will be the time the court decides personal jurisdiction first or thoughtfully considers the fraudulent joinder doctrine (or maybe stays the case pending transfer to an MDL).

But that’s where things get interesting in Robinson.  Plaintiffs (maybe a little too greedily, hindsight being what it is) sought attorney’s fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), which grants courts the authority to order payment of costs and fees incurred as a result of the removal.  The Robinson court obliged.  Citing nine other cases involving Pfizer and referencing “at least twenty-five other cases” in the district that had been remanded for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court determined that, in light of the “repeated admonishments and remands,” Pfizer had no objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal and plaintiffs were entitled to costs and expenses.  Robinson v. Pfizer Inc., 2016 WL 1721143, at *4 (E.D. Mo. April 29, 2016).

This was just the hook that Pfizer needed. While the remand order was not appealable, the sanction order was.  So Pfizer appealed.  In challenging the sanctions and defending its right to remove as objectively reasonable, Pfizer cited Daimler and Goodyear and argued that the Eastern District of Missouri was repeatedly and consistently ignoring those holdings.  Thus, while the removal itself technically may not be before the Eighth Circuit, in the course of ruling on the sanctions issue the Eighth Circuit will have the opportunity to consider the due process merits involved.

And the oral argument demonstrated that the issue of sanctions cannot be divorced from the underlying issue of the removal of multi-plaintiff complaints involving out-of-state plaintiffs. This is because to decide whether the court abused its discretion in awarding costs and fees, the Eighth Circuit necessarily must decide if it was objectively reasonable for Pfizer to challenge the joinder of these plaintiffs and the lack of personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state plaintiffs’ claims.

The Eighth Circuit panel recognized that Pfizer might have had better luck with its argument in other jurisdictions, and on two occasions the panel questioned why the district court had cited only other Eastern District authority and not any authority from other jurisdictions. (Indeed, there is much contra authority outside of the Eastern District of Missouri. See, e.g., Simmons v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC (In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Prods. Liab. Litig.), 2016 WL 2349105 (D. Mass. May 4, 2016); Liggins v. Abbvie Inc. (In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig.), 2016 WL 640520 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 18, 2016).)  The Eighth Circuit panel also seemed attuned to the underlying issue of allowing joinder to substitute for personal jurisdiction in these multi-plaintiff complaints, referring to it as “osmotic jurisdiction.”

At the end of rebuttal Pfizer requested that the court not only reverse the sanctions order, but also correct the error of law on personal jurisdiction perpetuated in the Eastern District of Missouri—expressly asking the Eighth Circuit to confirm that when looking at personal jurisdiction, it must be done plaintiff by plaintiff. If the Eighth Circuit accepts the invitation, it may be the final nail in the coffin for litigation tourism in the Eastern District of Missouri.

Imagine a conspiracy so vast that it includes not only your usual plaintiff-side fantasy of the FDA conspiring with a drug company, but also high FDA officials, President Obama, Robert Mercer (noted Trump supporter and reputed Breitbart financier), a number of other investors, and just for good measure President and Hillary Clinton.

Larry Klaman could, and thus brought the lawsuit that recently resulted in Aston v. Johnson & Johnson, ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1214399 (D.D.C. March 31, 2017).

Nobody else did, though.

In particular, and fortunately for everyone on the defense side, the judge in Aston could not.  Reading the Aston opinion, it is evident that the court is beyond skeptical of the vast, or even half-vast, conspiracy claims.  In a nutshell, five plaintiffs who claimed a great many personal injuries (the opinion lists 74 separate alleged injuries, 2017 WL 1214399, at *1) from their use of the drug Levaquin, brought suit alleging that the drug’s manufacturer and the FDA were in cahoots to cover up the drug’s risks, in order to increase the value of the manufacturer’s stock, to the advantage of various investors.  As for the political officials, according to the opinion:

Amazingly, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton also make cameo appearances in plaintiffs’ alleged scheme, together with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Foundation; these actors are alleged to have solicited, or received, “gratuities” from defendants in exchange for securing [another alleged conspirator’s] appointment as FDA Commissioner.

Id. at *2.  We admit, this is an extreme oversimplification – the opinion took two Westlaw pages just to sort through the Aston plaintiffs’ labyrinthine conspiracy allegations.

Plaintiffs’ legal theories were almost as numerous as their injury allegations – twenty-two counts, including RICO, state-law (Arizona (?)) RICO, strict product liability, negligence, fraud, express and implied warranty, unjust enrichment, Lanham Act, and a bunch of state consumer fraud claims (D.C., New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, and California). Id. at *3.

Aston threw everything out on the many defendants’ motions to dismiss. The half-vast conspiracy, and all its subsidiary theories of liability went down in a hail of defense-friendly rulings, and that’s why – aside from its humor value – the Aston opinion is well worth reading.  We’ll list the rulings so our readers will have an idea of what this goodie basket contains.

RICO – The deficiency in the RICO counts was rather basic. RICO does not allow recovery for personal injuries.  “The overwhelming weight of authority discussing the RICO standing issue holds that the ‘business or property’ language of Section 1964(c) does not encompass personal injuries.” Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *4 (citation and quotation marks omitted).  For a compilation of that authority, see Bexis’ Book, §2.15, footnote 3.  Further, “as plaintiffs’ counsel is well aware, courts in this District and elsewhere have consistently rejected the argument that pecuniary losses derivative of personal injuries are injuries to ‘business or property’ cognizable under RICO.”  Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *4 (citing, inter alia, Klayman v. Obama, 125 F. Supp.3d 67, 88 (D.D.C. 2015)).  Aston also distinguishes “tobacco litigation [RICO] precedents” because those cases arose from a federal prosecution that was not limited by the “business or property” requirements of RICO’s private cause of action.  2017 WL 1214399, at *5.

Nor did the Aston plaintiffs satisfy RICO’s causation requirements – for another very basic reason.  Even the most recent of the five plaintiffs’ injuries arose before the conspirators allegedly acted:

Barring some sort of temporal paradox, there is no way that suppression of an FDA report in 2013 could have caused plaintiffs to be injured in 2012 or earlier.  Because plaintiffs’ allegations, taken as true, are insufficient to establish proximate causation, their federal RICO counts must be dismissed.

Id. (citing H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 22–23 (1895)) (other citation omitted).  On this basis alone, we’re rooting for the defendants to obtain recovery of their counsel fees, since the underlying premise of the entire litigation was physically impossible.

Arizona RICO – Same basis:  “[P]laintiffs have failed to plead facts that make possible − let alone plausible − the conclusion that the alleged cover up by defendants was the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.”  Id. at *6.  Unfortunately, the relatively terse dismissal of does not answer the burning question − Why Arizona?

Lanham Act – Another fundamental basis for dismissal.  “[T]o come within the zone of interests in a suit for false advertising under [the Lanham Act], a plaintiff must allege an injury to a commercial interest in reputation or sales.”  Id. (quoting Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1390 (2014) (emphasis original in Aston).

Now comes the most useful stuff – dismissal of the common-law claims.  For the record, Aston applies the law of the District of Columbia rather than the law of the plaintiffs’ (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, California) or defendants’ (New Jersey) domiciles.  Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *6.

Product Liability (both strict liability and negligence) – Manufacturing defect is TwIqballed.  For all its factual prolixity, the Aston complaint was utterly devoid of any allegations that the drug wasn’t made precisely as intended.  Id. at *7 (“for all these recitals of the term ‘manufacture’ and its derivatives, plaintiffs plead no facts that would appear to relate to manufacturing defects”) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Warning related claims were also dismissed, in a usefully rigorous application of TwIqbal.  Dismissal in Aston occurred because plaintiffs failed to plead:  (1) “the contents of the warning label” when the drug was taken (2) “how the contents of the label were inadequate,” (3) “the timing of each plaintiffs use of” the drug, including “when each individual plaintiff was prescribed,” (4) “the onset of [plaintiffs’] injuries,” (5) “how the alleged distinctions in the warnings would have had a causal effect,” (6) “what injuries each individual plaintiff experienced,” (7) “why [plaintiffs] think [the drug] was the cause of the[ir] injuries,” and (8) “why [plaintiffs] think inadequate warnings contributed to their injuries.”  Id. (various quotations omitted).  That’s a spicy TwIqbal – without even having to get into the learned intermediary rule.

As to warnings, we also note that the court held that all warnings publicly available on the FDA’s website are subject to judicial notice.  Id. at *2 n.1.

Design defect claims were preempted under Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013), and Aston rejected the well-worn plaintiff argument that, for some reason, implied preemption is different in generic, as opposed to branded (as in Aston) drugs:

Plaintiffs are mistaken.  [Bartlett] expressly found that “[o]nce a drug − whether generic or brand-name − is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to [its formulation]” by federal law.  133 S. Ct. at 2471.  Thus, even though [Bartlett] arose from a state-law design-defect claim against a manufacturer of a generic drug, its holding applies to both types of drugs, and plaintiffs’ design-defect claim must be dismissed.

Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *8. Preemption is “fully consistent with the well-established tort law principle, ‘especially common in the field of drugs,’ that an unavoidably unsafe product is ‘not defective, nor is it unreasonably dangerous’ where it is ‘properly prepared, and accompanied by proper directions and warning.’”  Id. at *8 n.7 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, comment k (1965)).

Fraud/Misrepresentation – Perhaps predictably, plaintiffs’ fraud-based claims failed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b).  Id.  Allegations broadly “span[ning] the more than twenty-year period” alleged could not possibly allow defendants to file a response.  Id.  Plaintiffs “do not even specify which corporate entity they believe was responsible.”  Id.  Nor did any of the five plaintiffs allege their own circumstances with the required specificity.  Id.  “In sum, plaintiffs fall woefully short of pleading any specific allegations that would support a claim of fraud or misrepresentation.”  Id.

Warranty – Again, perhaps predictably, plaintiffs’ express warranty claims failed for not “plead[ing] any express promises.”  Id. at *9.  Here, Aston made another good TwIqbal ruling:

[T]o state a claim for breach of express warranty in cases involving prescription drugs, Plaintiffs must allege facts demonstrating that Defendants’ affirmations formed the basis of the bargain, i.e., facts regarding how the warranties were made to Plaintiff’s physician, and that Plaintiff’s specific physician relied on them.

Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted).  Implied warranty claims “cannot be independently maintained in a case involving prescription drugs.”  Id.

Unjust Enrichment – As against the investor defendants, merely “earn[ing] profits” from allegedly more valuable stock was “far too remote and speculative to support an unjust enrichment claim.”  Id. at *9.  As against the drug manufacturer defendants, the plaintiffs did not allege “that they conferred a benefit” on those defendants.  Id. at *10 (emphasis original).

[Plaintiffs] do[] not allege that [they] paid any money for [the drug], rather than relying on an insurer, as most patients do.  This omission is significant because there is no authority demonstrating that benefits received from third-parties can be the proper subject of an unjust enrichment claim.

Id. “Because plaintiffs have not pleaded any facts showing that they paid for [the drug], I must dismiss their unjust enrichment claim.”  Id.

Obamacare to the rescue.

Readers should remember this point; we don’t remember ever seeing an individual (as opposed to TPP) unjust enrichment claim that contains the allegations – personal, as opposed to third party payer – required by Aston and the precedent it follows.

Consumer Fraud Claims

Seven states’ laws were implicated − D.C., New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, and California. “Each count fails to state a claim.” Id.

Six of the states (all but Arizona) did not recognize consumer fraud claims involving prescription drugs.  Some states’ statutes did not allow personal injury damages (Pennsylvania, California, D.C.).  Others did not consider prescription drugs to be “consumer” goods (Maryland, New York).  Still other statutes simply had been held inapplicable to prescription drugs (California, Pennsylvania, Illinois).  Id.  Beyond that, all of the consumer fraud claims were dismissed as inadequately pleaded under Rule 9(b), which Aston applied to all consumer fraud claims.  Id. at *11.  In prescription drug cases, Rule 9(b) required specific pleading of prescriber reliance:

[T]he circumstances of those prescription decisions, and plaintiffs’ reliance on them, are particularly important − yet plaintiffs allege no information about them. The absence of detail about Plaintiffs experiences leads to the conclusion that Plaintiffs have not pleaded these claims with the requisite particularity.

Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted).

Finally, none of the plaintiffs resided in D.C. or New York.  Thus, claims under those two states’ consumer fraud statutes were also “dismissed because neither statute applies extraterritorially.”  Id. at *10 n.9.  We’ve always been interested in extraterritoriality.

So that’s Aston for you – an example of really poor facts (for the plaintiffs) making some quite excellent law for our side of the “v.”  Our only quibble with Aston is grammatical – in a couple of places, “principle” is used where “principal” is meant.  Id. at *2 (“principle role”); *6 (“principle place of business”).  But apart from a law clerk needing to repeat fifth grade English, the legal rulings in Aston are truly vast, and not half-vast at all.  In Ashton all too many defendants were made to spend all too much money to hire all too many of us lawyers.  With Aston now dismissed in its entirety, we certainly hope that all the defendants so inconvenienced seek to recover their fees as a sanction against such frivolous litigation.

I hope to see many of you at the 2017 DRI Drug and Medical Device Seminar on May 10-12th in New Orleans.  The meeting will feature its usual stellar lineup of presentations by in-house and outside counsel, a federal judge, deans of the drug and device defense bar, and – this is new – the US Chamber Litigation Center.  This seminar is the foremost educational and networking opportunity for practitioners in the pharmaceutical and medical device defense space. Connect with clients and colleagues and learn from cutting-edge presentations. We hope you join us in New Orleans!

If you want to chat, I’ll be in my usual front and center seat.

If you want to register, do it here

We spent Sunday evening in the familiar confines of a top-notch local professional theatre. The production was a short (80-minute), two-character play.  It was entirely dialogue-driven, so everything the audience learned came out of a character’s mouth – there was no action to speak of.  It was also perfectly cast, well-acted, and absorbing.  By the end of the first 75 minutes, we cared a lot about the characters and were anxious to learn how their story ended.  Then came the revelation (residents of our neighborhood who intend to see this play should skip this spoiler) that nothing we had seen and heard had actually happened, at least in anything like the fashion we had come to understand.  The (mostly glowing) reviews described this as a “plot twist.”  This wasn’t a plot twist.  A plot twist is when something unexpected happens, taking the story in a new direction.  This was a gimmick – a dishonest device that relieved the playwright of the burden to maintain plot integrity and create a plausible dramatic arc.  And we felt angry and betrayed, and somewhat “fool me twice” duped, as this was the second play in a single year that employed a “Bobby Ewing in the shower” ploy like this one.  (Only readers who share our dotage will understand that reference.)  We love the theatre more than almost anything, and we are sad to see this sort of trickery gain traction.  From now on, we will try to remember that we can’t rely on anything that any character says.

Of course, we already knew that about a lot of plaintiffs’ mass tort causation experts. Last month, we blogged about the exclusion of one plaintiff’s experts in a hernia mesh case.  Today’s case, like the Bowersock case that was the subject of our last post, is a case that was remanded to its transferor court when the hernia mesh MDL shut down.  In Olmo v. Davol, Inc. and C.R. Bard., Inc., Case No. 13-62260-CIV-COHN/SELTZER, United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the court recently decided the defendants’ motion to exclude the plaintiff’s causation expert and their Motion for Summary Judgment.   You can see the order here.

In Olmo, the plaintiff’s abdominal hernia was repaired with the defendants’ Composix Kugel (“CK”) hernia repair patch in 2005.  In the CK patch, the mesh patch is attached to two memory recoil rings intended to stabilize the device.  Six years after her CK patch was implanted, the plaintiff experienced abdominal pain, and her CK patch was explanted and replaced with a different hernia mesh product.  The explanting physician observed that a corner of the CK patch had lost fixation and folded under, causing mesh to erode into the plaintiff’s bowel.  The explanter did not observe buckling in the explanted device, did not determine whether the rings had broken, and did not discern what had caused the mesh to fold.  The explanted patch was not preserved and was not photographed before it was discarded.

In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that a break in one or both of the memory recoil rings in her CK patch caused the mesh to come into contact with her bowel. She submitted the report of a biomedical engineering expert who briefly chimed in with his assent to the plaintiff’s theory, stating, “The fact that the mesh had folded such that the porous polypropylene layer contacted internal organs, unequivocally leads to the conclusion that the outer and perhaps also the inner memory recoil rings did not prevent folding, which is only possible subsequent to . . . [ring] breakage . . . .”  Order, p. 7.  But, as the court noted, the remainder of the expert’s report was “devoted almost entirely to explaining why [he] believes that [the defendants’] product testing and design of the CK patch were unsatisfactory,” and did not explain “why folding necessarily leads to the conclusion that a ring break occurred.” Id. (citation omitted).  Nor did the expert clear this up at his deposition.  Instead, when asked how he reached his conclusion that a ring had broken, the expert responded that “major folding of the device,” such as that described by the plaintiff’s explanter, is only possible when a ring breaks.  The expert did no tests to confirm his theory.  He did no tests to rule out an alternative theory.  He was not aware of any scientific studies or literature supporting his conclusion.  And he could point to no evidence that “engineering or medical communities would accept the premise that the folding described by [the explanter] is only possible with a ring break.”  The expert did add that the folding of the plaintiff’s patch was greater than he had observed in cases in which a ring break was documented, but he couldn’t identify any of those cases.  Citing Joiner, the court concluded that there was “too great an analytical gap” between the data on which the expert relied and his “broken ring” conclusion, and excluded the expert’s testimony in its entirety.

With no admissible evidence of medical causation, the plaintiff could not satisfy her burden of proof of her warnings and design defect claims, and her remaining claims – punitive damages and loss of consortium – could not survive alone. So the court granted summary judgment and dismissed all of the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.

We love this. You have heard us rant and rave enough times about mass tort plaintiffs who get money for claims they can’t prove.  It was nice to see aggressive lawyering and a brave and sensible judge lock the vault with this plaintiff’s open hand safely outside.  And, just maybe, plaintiff lawyers will someday think twice about relying on experts who skip the step of employing reliable (or any) methodology.  We can always hope.  Just as we will the next time the house lights dim, the curtain opens, and a theatrical journey begins.

We’ve addressed sunscreen class actions here from time to time. The FDA regulates sunscreen as an OTC drug, and so these class actions can generate decisions of interest in areas of preemption and primary jurisdiction. For instance, we told you about, Gisvold v. Merck & Co., 62 F. Supp. 3d 1198 (S.D. Cal. 2014), in which a court found preempted a putative class action plaintiff’s claim that the Coppertone SPORT SPF 100+ she bought at Walmart should have disclaimed that it was no more effective than sunscreen with an SPF of 50.  The court based its preemption determination on the plaintiff seeking labeling that was different from that required by the FDA.  In addition, the court invoked primary jurisdiction, deferring to the FDA on how to address SPF values greater than 50, as the FDA was already in the process of evaluating that issue.

But, as in medical device cases, preemption in sunscreen litigation can seem muddled. Just recently in another sunscreen class action, Dayan v. Swiss-American Prods., Inc. (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 207), a federal court in New York rejected a preemption-based motion to dismiss a claim that the labeling of a sunscreen product as SPF 45 was misleading because the product actually performed at a lower SPF level.  As support for his claim, plaintiff pled data from tests conducted under the FDA’s SPF testing protocols. The court adopted a magistrate’s report and recommendation, which reasoned that the plaintiff’s “state law claims [sat] next to federal regulations and are not premised on Defendant’s alleged failure to comply with FDCA requirements.” Id. at *4. Sort of a parallel violation claim for sunscreen.

As the court conceded, though, its distinction between what is preempted and what is not is, at best, “tricky.” Id. at *10. There seems to be little to no air on which plaintiff’s claim can survive between express and implied preemption. If, as his case develops, plaintiff is left to argue that the defendant followed FDA-mandated protocols in testing the sunscreen and disclosing the results, his claim that the label should nonetheless be different would seem to trigger preemption because it would require something different from what the FDA requires. On the other hand, if plaintiff’s claim, as fleshed out through discovery, appears to be that the defendant failed to follow FDA protocols, it would start to read like an improper attempt to privately enforce FDA regulations.

In other words, sunscreen preemption seems every bit as messy as medical device preemption. Maybe, in this case, it can be cleared up at the summary judgment stage—that is, if this case gets passed class certification—where defendant may have another chance, based on a full record of what plaintiff is trying to do, to ask for judgment based on preemption.