As we roll out of bed on the day after Thanksgiving, we are often confronted with contradictory thoughts. For instance, “why did I have that third plate at dinner?” might be followed by “How can I eat some leftovers for breakfast?” Leftovers are as much of an American tradition on this day as watching videos of altercations during frenzied early holiday shopping. Both celebrate wretched excess in their own way. Some leftovers, however, can be combined to create something tasty and worthwhile. Other leftover uses should not be attempted. We would put sandwiches of turkey, stuffing (dressing down South), and cranberry goop in the former category and Brussels sprouts omelets in the latter.
A while back, for a few years, we chronicled a real turkey of a case called Howard. The saga is recounted here, where the plaintiff’s expert was finally kicked for the unreliability of his defect opinion about the PMA device at issue in the case. Along the way, the case generated two notably foul (fowl?) opinions. Deciding on preemption in the context of a theoretical claim, the Sixth Circuit held that a negligence per se claim could be a parallel claim and avoid express preemption. Years later, on a referred question, the Oklahoma Supreme Court okayed a negligence per se claim under Oklahoma law based on violations of the FDCA. That gobbler took home the ribbon for third worst of 2013. Our well-documented view that there can be no negligence per se claims based on violations of the FDCA notwithstanding, Oklahoma now has a claim that came from a case that was soon to be plucked and exposed as lacking merit.
A few years later, the plaintiffs in Cantwell v. De La Garza, No. CIV-18-272-D, 2018 WL 5929638 (W.D. Okla. Nov. 13, 2018), sued an implanting orthopedic surgeon, non-profit health care system, and medical device manufacturer for alleged injuries from the alleged off-label use of a PMA medical device in a spinal surgery. The manufacturer moved to dismiss. We do not have many details of the underlying facts or allegations, but we are focusing on the negligence per se claim—the leftover from the Howard turkey, in case you missed our less-than-subtle theme. A few weeks before the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision in Howard, the Western District of Oklahoma rejected the purported parallel claims in Caplinger. After a motion to reconsider was denied, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in Caplinger v. Medtronic, Inc., 784 F.3d 1335 (10th Cir. 2015), one of our favorite preemption decisions and a 2015 winner. In part because that decision was authored by future Justice Gorsuch, we have drilled down on Caplinger a few times and tracked its impact.
The Cantwell plaintiffs claimed that the manufacturer had promoted the device to be used off-label—it was approved for use in the thoracolumbar spine, but was used in the cervical spine—and that violated apparently unspecified provisions of the FDCA and its regulations. Under the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision in Howard, “To establish negligence per se, the plaintiff must demonstrate the claimed injury was caused by the violation [of a statute], and was of the type intended to be prevented by the statute . . . [and] the injured party [was] one of the class intended to be protected by the statute.” Pretty much the hornbook definition, along with the requirement that the plaintiff prove breach, causation, and damage. In the context of pleadings and the Howard decision, the court went back to basics. Plaintiffs did not plead a particular statute or regulation that had been allegedly violated, let alone that could be tied to the injuries attributed to the device at issue. Howard did not lower the pleadings bar: “The court said nothing to suggest, however, that a plaintiff wishing to bring such a claim could proceed without identifying the statute or regulation allegedly violated, and thus the duty allegedly breached by the defendant’s conduct.” Looking to Caplinger and the unaddressed but obvious issue of preemption, the court noted that “such identification is particularly important in the area of medical devices, where a state-law negligence claim must survive the FDCA’s provision of a federal preemption device.” So, no identified allegedly violated federal statute or regulation meant no properly pleaded claim for negligence per se. Citing to the FDCA in general or invoking the loaded term “off-label” was not enough to get past a motion to dismiss. Predictably, though, the dismissal was without prejudice, so we expect plaintiffs will try again. If they do, then we would not be surprised if Justice Gorsuch’s former colleagues on the Tenth Circuit get another chance to weigh in on express preemption with a re-heated version of Howard.