We’ve written about a lot of Risperdal summary judgment wins. No medical causation, no warnings causation (learned intermediaries aware of risks), no alternative design, no fraud. So, when we see an opinion that overturns a plaintiff’s verdict on the grounds of (1) impossibility preemption; (2) clear evidence preemption; and (3) no evidence of general causation, we can’t help but wonder how it got to trial in the first place. So we decided to do a little digging. From our review of the case, it appears these issues were all raised at the summary judgment stage but denied. What changed before and after trial? Not the facts that support these arguments. The regulatory history hasn’t changed. The experts’ opinions haven’t changed. Yet, defendant had to go through an amateur-hour trial (we’ll tell you more about that later) and then wait over a year for these post-trial rulings granting judgment as a matter of law. Sure, better a late win then no win at all – but it certainly feels like this could have been avoided.
The case is Byrd v. Janssen Pharm, Inc., No. 1:14-cv-0820, slip op. (N.D.N.Y. Sep. 21, 2018) and, as mentioned above, involved Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug prescribed to treat serious mental conditions – schizophrenia, manic depression, and autism. Plaintiff alleged that his use of Risperdal caused him to develop abnormal breast tissue growth. The two claims that went to trial were negligent design, manufacturing, and warning defect and strict liability design, warning, and misrepresentation. Id. at 3.
The opinion methodically sets out both defendant’s arguments and plaintiff’s responses, but we’re going to jump right to the conclusions. First up was preemption. Standard plaintiff argument: defendant unilaterally should have changed its warning to include gynecomastia and was able to do it via the Changes Being Effected (“CBE”) regulations. Standard impossibility preemption defense: federal law prohibited defendant from changing the FDA-approved labeling and/or there is “clear evidence” that the FDA would have rejected the proposed labeling change. Id. at 12. The court was persuaded as to both impossibility and clear evidence. Defendant presented “clear evidence” that the FDA had rejected its request to add safety and dosing information for pediatric use of Risperdal. Id.
But the court spent most of its analysis on whether a CBE label change even was permissible under federal law. A CBE labeling change can only be made on the basis of new information concerning a serious risk. “[H]ere, the relationship between antipsychotics and [abnormal breast development] was not new information because it had been discussed in basic psychiatry textbooks for decades, and the FDA does not consider gynecomastia a serious adverse event.” Id. at 9. A “serious” adverse event is defined by federal regulations to be an event that either “resulted in inpatient hospitalization or required surgical intervention to prevent inpatient hospitalization.” Id. at 15. And, both plaintiff’s and defendant’s regulatory experts agreed that gynecomastia “would not be a serious adverse event.” Id. at 16-17. Now, plaintiff’s expert was Dr. Plunkett and she was quick to voice her personal disagreement with the FDA on this point – but that’s irrelevant (both to us and to the court). Id. at 17.
The court didn’t stop there. Defendant also argued that plaintiff had failed to satisfy his burden of proof on causation. While defendant made arguments regarding both proximate and medical causation, the court focused its attention on the latter and specifically the lack of general causation evidence. Id. at 26. Starting with Dr. Plunkett who “admitted to not being a causation expert,” but opined on it anyway – the court found her opinion unsupported by the literature. Id. None of the three pieces of literature relied on by Dr. Plunkett included a control group, so at best they were evidence of an association, not a correlation. Dr. Plunkett’s reliance on this literature demonstrated a “disregard for the difference between an association between two things and a causal relationship between those two things.” Id. at 29; see id. at 30 (“a correlation between Risperdal and gynecomastia cannot be drawn without a control group”). The fact that these studies lack a control group was likely not “new” information at trial and again begs the question why this issue is only being properly addressed post-trial.
Plaintiff’s other causation expert likewise had no support for a general causation opinion. His conclusion was that plaintiff’s gynecomastia was “secondary at least in part to prolonged use of Risperdal.” Id. at 31. But, putting aside reliance on the same literature relied on by Plunkett, the only basis plaintiff’s second expert had for his general causation opinion was his differential diagnosis. A differential diagnosis, however, “generally does not prove general causation.” Id. at 33. It assumes general causation has already been proven. Without general causation, defendant was entitled to judgement as a matter of law.
Still, the opinion continues. The remainder of the decision addressed defendant’s alternative request for a new trial based on the inappropriate conduct of plaintiff’s counsel. The court did not need to decide this issue having already found two grounds to overturn the verdict and award judgement in defendant’s favor. Based on the description of plaintiff’s trial antics, however, we can only assume that the court wanted this opportunity to admonish plaintiff’s counsel. Defendant pointed out 23 separate incidences of plaintiff’s attorney’s misconduct in front of the jury. Id. at 34. In concluding that plaintiff’s counsel’s behavior did warrant a new trial, the court relied on:
(1) Plaintiff’s counsel’s self-deprecating tone of voice and posture when referring to his lack of professional skills and/or experience, (2) his helpless tone of voice and posture when referring to the fact that he was bullied as a child, (3) his alternating innocent and defensive tones of voice in response to an admonishment by the Court, (4) the sympathetic facial expressions of the jurors following the aforementioned acts and/or accompanying comments, (5) the credulous expressions of the jurors following Plaintiff’s counsel’s acts of asserting the truth of Plaintiff’s case and/or vouching for his witnesses, and (6) the jurors’ reactions following Plaintiff’s counsel’s acts of offering his personal opinions about the evidence and/or testifying when he could not otherwise introduce evidence.
Id. at 37-38. While this behavior more than justified a new trial – it wasn’t necessary because no childish antics could overcome the fact that plaintiff had failed to prove general causation and that defendant had clear evidence to support impossibility preemption. Both of those things were true a year ago too. But better late than never.