As we discussed at the time, the MDL-wide innovator liability appeals in In re Darvocet, Darvon, & Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d 917 (6th Cir. 2014), resulted in rulings under more than 20 states’ laws that branded drug manufacturers could not be liable for injuries suffered by plaintiffs who never used their products, but only took competing generic drugs. Twenty-something states in one opinion. If that had ever happened before, we remain unaware of it.
Well, it recently happened again, albeit on a smaller scale. See In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Products Liability Litigation, ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 3448548 (D. Mass. Aug. 4, 2017). The Zofran MDL is like Darvon in that it involves a relatively old drug, approved back in 1991, for prevention of nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing difficult treatments such as chemotherapy. Id. at *1. Since Bendectin was driven off the market by bogus birth defect litigation, drug companies have been loathe to pursue anything for treating morning sickness (we know of only one), which leaves off-label use. Id. at *2. Thus, Zofran and its generic equivalents are frequently used off-label by women (and their physicians) seeking some kind of relief from pregnancy-related morning sickness.
The Zofran litigation is a consequence of this off-label use – anything used during pregnancy becomes the target of birth defect lawsuits. Plaintiffs make a rather extreme claim, that defendants should be liable for not researching the risks of off-label uses for which they never sought FDA labeling approval. Id. at *3 (“The crux of all of the claims is that defendants failed to perform an adequate study of the safety of ingesting Zofran during pregnancy”).
When generic drugs get involved, things get even worse. Plaintiffs using generic drugs are barred by preemption from suing those manufacturers (absent unusual situations like failure to update warnings with FDA-ordered changes), id. at *4, but they still want money, so they try to sue the branded manufacturers – innovator liability, in these cases for off-label uses. Such claims seek to hold manufacturers liable for the risks of someone else’s product used in a manner for which that product was never labeled.
In Zofran, the court was having none of it. It ordered all generic plaintiffs – 35 plaintiffs from 19 states − alleging innovator liability to justify those allegations. Id. Challenged to put up or shut up, most of the generic plaintiffs dropped out, leaving six plaintiffs suing under the laws of six states, those being Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Oklahoma. Id.
Examining the laws of those six states, the court in Zofran, like the court in Darvocet, concluded that none of them would take the radical step of holding branded drug manufacturers liable for injuries caused by competing generic drugs. Such liability ran contrary to “the long-settled principle that a manufacturer of a product cannot be held liable for injuries caused by another company’s product.” Id. at *4. Instead, plaintiffs alleged that:
As the holders of the New Drug Application (NDA) for Zofran and the patents for Zofran, [innovator] Defendants knew that any generic drug manufacturer would be required by law to use the same labeling as Zofran’s, and that any inadequacies in the labeling of generic ondansetron could be corrected by Defendants only.
Id. at *5. Thus, the innovator defendants were being held liable not for what they chose to do, but rather for what was “required by law” – how Congress, in amending the FDCA, had chosen to structure the generic drug market. While plaintiffs claimed this was not “novel,” id., to paraphrase Yogi Berra, “half the lies they tell about [the law] aren’t true.”
The overwhelming majority of courts—including all seven federal circuits to have addressed the issue—have held that the manufacturer of a brand-name drug may not be held liable for injuries caused by ingestion its generic equivalent, regardless of the theory of liability.
Id. at *6 (citations omitted). The omitted citations, of just the federal appellate decisions, take up half a page of the opinion. But don’t fret about that. Our “Innovator Liability at 100” post, which discusses all these decisions, is closing in on 14,000 words. The precedent rejecting innovator liability is truly “overwhelming.”
The “minority view,” on the other hand, consists of exactly four cases, one of which was “superseded by statute” “within a year” of being decided. Id. at *8-9 & n. 6. As for the relevant states in Zofran:
Georgia: An intermediate state appellate court, the Sixth Circuit in Darvocet, and a federal district court, have all rejected innovator liability. See PLIVA, Inc. v. Dement, 780 S.E.2d 735, 743 (Ga. App. 2015); Darvocet, 756 F.3d at 943; Swicegood v. Pliva, Inc., 543 F. Supp. 2d 1351, 1353-54 (N.D. Ga. 2008). Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *8-9. On the other side – zilch. Actually, Georgia precedent rejecting innovator liability is more extensive than what was mentioned in Zofran. See our “at 100” post for details.
Indiana: The Sixth Circuit Darvocet case also rejected innovator liability under Indiana law. 756 F.3d at 845. Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *10-11. Again, there are several more Indiana law cases also rejecting innovator liability that aren’t mentioned in Zofran – but are in our post.
Kentucky: Not only is Darvocet again on point, but the Sixth Circuit likewise rejected innovator liability in another Kentucky law case. Darvocet, 756 F.3d at 945-46; Smith v. Wyeth, Inc., 657 F.3d. 420, 423-24 (6th Cir. 2011). Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *11. As our post adds, a couple of Kentucky litigation tourists also got kicked out of court in Missouri on innovator liability grounds.
Massachusetts: Two Massachusetts trial courts have rejected innovator liability. Rafferty v. Merck & Co., 2016 WL 3064255, at *4-5 (Mass. Super. May 23, 2016); Kelly v. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories Co., 2005 WL 4056740, at *2-5 (Mass. Super. May 6, 2005). Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *12-13. We provide some more on-point Massachusetts precedent in our post, which never has to cite to a non-Westlaw slip opinion, because Bexis gets all the good ones added.
New York: Darvocet, again, plus federal and state trial court decisions, all rejecting innovator liability under New York law. Darvocet, 756 F.3d at 949; Goldych v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2006 WL 2038436, at *3-8 (N.D.N.Y. July 19, 2006); Weese v. Pfizer, Inc., 2013 WL 5691993, at *2 (N.Y. Sup. Oct. 8, 2013). Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *13-14. Actually, there’s another recent federal district court decision that agrees, as our post discusses.
Oklahoma: Not only Darvocet, but another federal appellate decision both reject innovator liability under Oklahoma law. Darvocet, 756 F.3d at 950-51; Schrock v. Wyeth, Inc., 727 F.3d 1273, 1281-84 (10th Cir. 2013). Zofran, 2017 WL 3448548, at *14. Our post adds another state trial court opinion applying Oklahoma law in a similar manner (a toughie, but we found it).
Thus, the Zofran decision concludes, as to the merits of innovator liability, that there aren’t any merits, and that contorting state law to impose liability for liability’s sake, without any basis in precedent or policy, isn’t a good idea:
In summary, none of the state supreme courts in any of the six relevant states have ruled on precisely the issues presented here. Nonetheless, for each of the jurisdictions, there is case law suggesting, often strongly so, that dismissal is appropriate. . . .
It is true that dismissal would appear to leave consumers injured by generic drugs without any form of remedy. But it is by no means obvious that the minority viewpoint is correct or fair, or even that it is the outcome that best protects consumers. Just as it may be unfair to leave some injured consumers without a remedy, so too it may be unfair or unwise to require brand-name manufacturers to bear 100% of the liability, when they may have only 10%, or less, of the relevant market.
Id., 2017 WL 3448548, at *14 (citations omitted).
Finally, Zofran rejects what appears to be the new overall strategy of generic plaintiffs peddling innovator liability theories – try to shift the battle from federal to state courts. Zofran refused to certify the issue to the high courts of the six states in question. Id. at *15-17. New York doesn’t even allow certification (an “oops” for plaintiffs). Id. at *16. “Clear and recent” appellate authority in every state but Massachusetts, leaves little doubt what the relevant law is. Id. As for Massachusetts (and indeed all the states), the question proposed to be certified “involve[d] alleged misrepresentations, none of which are identified by the plaintiff,” leaving the basis for those claims “unclear.” Id. at *17. Certification of such a “hypothetical” question would thus be “inadvisable”:
It is therefore entirely possible that the Court could wind up certifying a purely hypothetical question that has no actual relationship to the evidence. It would be an enormous waste of judicial resources to certify a fact-bound question to the [state high court], only to find that the facts as ultimately proved are different. . . . Any answer . . . to the proposed question might therefore prove to be entirely advisory.
Id. (footnote omitted). Courts faced with innovator-liability-related certification requests in the future are likely to be facing similar situations, given how loosely our opponents throw around misrepresentation allegations. Kudos to Zofran for not taking the easy way out, and declining to kick the decisional can down the road.