No one can be all that happy with how the Accutane mass tort proceeding has played out in New Jersey. We have no involvement in that proceeding, but we have monitored it from afar, and it has been extraordinarily contentious. The rub is that the parties have very little to show for the effort. The latest shoe dropped last week when the New Jersey Appellate Division vacated (again) a jury verdict in favor of an Accutane plaintiff. The unpublished opinion in McCarrell v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., No. A-4481-12T1, 2017 WL 1683187 (N.J. App. Div. May 2, 2017), is interesting, both in its treatment of expert opinion and evidence on causation under Alabama law.
But before we get to that, let’s review very briefly what has come before. When plaintiffs first started suing in earnest over Accutane, they alleged a variety of injuries, including psychiatric conditions, birth defects, kidney disorders, vision problems, and musculoskeletal problems. There has been some litigation on these issues, but the proceedings in New Jersey and elsewhere have focused largely on gastrointestinal disease, including inflammatory bowel disease. IBD can be every bit as bad as the name makes it sound, and we can see why patients who experience IBD can garner substantial sympathy. But the warnings on gastrointestinal disorders are robust, and a federal court in Florida ruled in 2012 and 2013 that the Accutane warnings as to IBD were adequate as a matter of law.
But not in New Jersey, where several cases have proceeded to trial. We have not surveyed the New Jersey verdicts lately, but the last time we did, we counted about half a dozen verdicts—all of which were vacated, with others pending on appeal. There certainly are others that we are not counting here, but the trend is unmistakable: Multiple trials presided over by a New Jersey mass tort judge who was championed by some as a hard-working jurist and vilified by others for placing a thumb firmly on one side of the scale. Substantial verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs. All of them vacated. In the mass tort context, vacated verdicts represent a massive waste of both sides’ time and money.
Which is what happened again last week in McCarrell. The case was first tried to a jury in 2007, resulting in a verdict for the plaintiff. But the Appellate Division vacated that award and remanded for a new trial because of erroneous evidentiary rulings. McCarrell, 2017 WL 1683187, at *1. The parties therefore tried the case again in 2010, which resulted in a larger verdict for the plaintiff. On appeal from the second verdict, the Appellate Division reversed again and held that the claims were time barred. But the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed and remanded the case back to the Appellate Division to address the remaining issues on appeal. Id. at **1-2
That remand resulted in last week’s opinion, and the Appellate Division reversed again. First, the trial judge ordered that it would not allow duplicate expert testimony. As a result, the defense had its expert gastroenterologist address certain studies, but was prohibited from having an epidemiologist corroborate that testimony. Id. at *2. The rubber hit the road in closing argument when plaintiff’s counsel emphasized to the jury that the defense gastroenterologist’s opinion stood alone. That was a problem, particularly once the Appellate Division ruled in 2013 that “trial courts should not prohibit overlapping expert testimony in complex matters on a ‘central issue of liability.’” Id. at *2 (citing McLean v. Liberty Health System, 430 N.J. Super. 156 (App. Div. 2013)). Under that ruling, the trial judge’s decision to disallow overlapping expert testimony about scientific studies was error. Id. at *3. And in light of counsel’s emphasis in closing on the defendants’ expert as a “lone outlier,” the error was prejudicial.
Second, the court held that the plaintiff had not met his burden of proving causation. This was a failure-to-warn case, but no one asked the prescribing physician whether her decision to prescribe Accutane would have been different if the drug had come with a stronger warning. Id. at *4. Regular readers of the blog know this is warnings causation 101, and because the plaintiff bears the burden of proof under the applicable law (Alabama in this case), the absence of this essential evidence caused his warnings-based claims to fail as a matter of law. Id. We agree wholeheartedly with this ruling, although we are somewhat puzzled that the Appellate Division suggested going out and deposing the doctor again. Sure, the doctor was deposed in 2007, but the burden of proving warning causation is not obscure now and was not obscure then. It is not obvious to us that a second bite at the apple is warranted, nor do we know if the prescriber can even be re-deposed, after another decade has passed.
So what do we mean when we say that no one can be happy with this? The opinion gives parties on both sides more leeway in presenting expert testimony, and we have guidance on proving failure to warn under Alabama law. But in the larger scheme, this case is apparently heading for a third trial, having first b een tried ten years ago. Other verdicts from New Jersey have met the same fate. Plaintiffs are left empty handed, and the defendants continue to bear the burden of vigorous litigation in New Jersey, whereas the federal MDL wrapped up in the defendants’ favor years ago. In the end, McCarrell is a defense win, but the cost has been high.