This year’s Academy Award nominations came out last week. That means that we have spent the past few days setting a schedule for seeing all of the Best Picture nominees (well, most – we don’t do war movies and tend to opt out of love stories involving semi-animate objects) and scouring recipe blogs for perfect Oscar party buffet items. We have also reminisced, with amusement, about the climactic moments of last year’s show, during which the presenters announced the wrong Best Picture winner before an Academy official shoved them out of the way and corrected the error. As we recall, it turned out (not surprisingly) that the mistake was caused by sloppiness. The Academy’s accountant handed the presenters a duplicate envelope for an award that had already been presented, starting the embarrassing domino cascade. We recall that heads rolled in the ensuing days.
Today’s case also involves the consequences of sloppiness, along with a couple of interesting legal rulings. In its unpublished decision in Small v. Amgen, Inc., et al., 2018 WL 501354 (11th Cir. Jan 22, 2018), the Eleventh Circuit considered the plaintiff’s appeal of two summary judgment orders: a grant of partial summary judgment for the defendants, and a later grant of summary judgment on all of the remaining claims.
The plaintiff was prescribed the defendants’ drug to treat her rheumatoid arthritis. She took the drug for nearly six years then suffered a perforated bowel and a diverticulitis infection, for which she underwent multiple surgeries. She sued the drug’s manufacturers, asserting all of the usual claims. In 2014, the district court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claims, holding that Florida’s learned intermediary doctrine precluded the claims. Later, when the plaintiff’s expert disclosures revealed her sloppy omissions — although she identified five treating physicians she intended to use as non-retained experts, she had no expert to testify to general or specific causation — the defendants moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s remaining claims. In 2017, the district court granted the defendants’ motion.
On appeal, the plaintiff did not dispute or even address the 2017 summary judgment order. Instead, she argued that the 2014 dismissal of her warnings claims was improper because there were factual issues “regarding the district court’s treatment of [her prescriber] as a learned intermediary.” Small, 2018 WL 501354 at *2. She also argued that “the district court incorrectly decided that the direct ‘patient labeling requirement’ in the FDA medication guidelines did not preempt Florida’s learned intermediary doctrine.” Id.
With respect to the prescriber-as-learned-intermediary argument, the court explained that the plaintiff’s prescribing physician had 22 years of experience in rheumatology and “intentionally selected [the drug] for [the plaintiff], despite the risk of possible infections, because other forms of rheumatoid arthritis therapy had failed.” Id. What’s more, the prescriber was involved in clinical trials with the drug, and the plaintiff was a participant, giving the prescriber “more reason to know of and discuss possible side-effects or concerns” associated with the drug.” Id. The prescriber “knew that infections were possible but prescribed the drug anyway . . . because the benefits outweighed the risks.” Id. As such, because “the prescribing physician had substantially the same knowledge as an adequate warning from the manufacturer should have communicated,” the plaintiff could not prove warnings causation and her warnings claims failed as a matter of law. Id. (internal punctuation and citation omitted). In other words, “the failure of the manufacturer to provide the physician with an adequate warning . . . is not the proximate cause of a patient’s injury if the prescribing physician had independent knowledge of the risk that the adequate warning should have communicated.” Id. (citation omitted).
Next, the plaintiff argued that Florida’s learned intermediary doctrine was preempted by the FDA’s requirement that the manufacturers provide patients with a “medication guide” for the drug. The court emphasized that “the historic police powers of the State [were] not superseded unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.” Id. at *3 (internal punctuation and citation omitted). To discern such “clear and manifest purpose” in cases of implied preemption, the court explained that it considered “the promulgating agency’s contemporaneous explanation of its objectives as well as the agency’s current views of the regulation’s preemptive effect.” Id. (internal punctuation and citation omitted).
In the case of the medication guide regulation, the FDA had specifically addressed concerns that the regulation would alter the framework for manufacturers’ liability by abrogating the learned intermediary doctrine. In response, the agency stated that “the written patient medication information provided did not alter the duty, or set the standard of care for, manufacturers [or] physicians . . . .” Id. (citation omitted). Given this “contemporaneous explanation” from the FDA, coupled with the reality that “courts have not recognized an exception to the learned intermediary defense in situations where the FDA has required patient labeling . . . ,” the court held that there was no preemption. We love this holding, and we believe this is the first time that an appellate court has so held.
No preemption, no warnings causation – summary judgment on warnings claims affirmed. And, because the plaintiff did not address her inexplicable failure to identify causation experts, the court held that she had waived any appeal of the 2017 summary judgment order. Case (tidily) dismissed, in a no-nonsense decision we like very much. We’ll let you know if we are similarly pleased by this year’s Oscars.