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Earlier this week, we posted on the Ninth Circuit’s conversion of the Daubert’s gate (that the trial court should keep) into more of a swinging saloon door.  A week before the Ninth Circuit ruled that a trial court had erred in excluding unreliable causation testimony (and granting summary judgment as a result), the Third Circuit had affirmed a trial court’s exclusion of unreliable causation testimony (and grant of summary judgment as a result).  Even though we are discussing In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 2385279 (3d Cir. 2017), second, it really is a bigger deal because it reaffirmed the end of an entire MDL.

We followed the district court’s Daubert rulings on the epidemiology and mechanism experts offered for all the plaintiffs.  We watched in amazement as the plaintiffs got to try again and still could not offer reliable expert testimony on general causation.   With our typical restraint, we applauded the court’s subsequent decision that no plaintiff could make out a case for general causation between maternal use of the drug and the cardiac birth defects claimed without the excluded experts and that was fatal to their claims.  We found that the plaintiffs, maybe because of the sympathy associated with their claimed injuries, got plenty of leeway before the court determined that there was simply no there (i.e., good science) there.  (Along the way, we saw that Pennsylvania and West Virginia state courts came to similar conclusions.)

The appeal to the Third Circuit focused on whether the biostatistician offered as a back-up expert on epidemiology was properly excluded, with plaintiffs conceding that they should have lost if he was.  Plaintiffs’ central contention was that the district court created a standard that requires general causation opinions to be “supported by replicated observational studies reporting a statistically significant association between the drug and the adverse effect.”  We think that standard, similar to Havner and Daubert II, is a fine standard, but the district court did not create or apply such a standard in knocking out the biostatistician.  Likewise, the Third Circuit declined to “state a bright-line rule” that “statistical significance is necessary to prove causality.”  (We think it is, because the Bradford Hill Criteria, which the biostatistician purported to apply, starts with an association demonstrated through epidemiologic studies.  We will try to resist arguing for the tighter standard given the result.)  The district court considered the lack of multiple statistically significant studies supporting an association to be contrary to what teratologists generally require and thus relevant to whether an opinion without such support was unreliable.  A flexible approach to evaluating the reliability of a general causation opinion was fine with the Third Circuit and its reading of the Bradford Hill Criteria.  (There is flexibility, but only when there is an association from epidemiologic studies as a predicate.  OK, we will have to try harder.)

The Third Circuit “accept[ed] that the Bradford Hill and weight of the evidence analyses are generally reliable.  We also assume that the ‘techniques’ used to implement the analysis (here, meta-analysis, trend analysis, and reanalysis) are themselves reliable.”  That assumption is dicta—which is a good thing—because the court concluded that the biostatistician did not reliably apply the methodology or techniques that he claimed to be applying.  First, he gave lip service to analyzing “multiple positive, insignificant results,” but he really just eyeballed trends.  Second, his trend analysis was based on cherry picking and inconsistent application of basic statistics principles.  Third, his meta-analysis was also result-driven, as he could not justify why he included some studies and excluded others.  Fourth, his reanalysis was done for no reason but to conclude that a published study reporting no association should have found one.  Altogether, “the fact that Dr. Jewell applied these techniques inconsistently, without explanation, to different subsets of the body of evidence raises real issues of reliability.  Conclusions drawn from such unreliable application are themselves questionable.”

The court probably could have stopped there.  It went on to detail how the biostatistician’s purported application of Bradford Hill was riddled with errors that he could not explain.  This was more than enough to conclude that the district court had not abused its discretion in excluding the expert.

Along the way, however, it noted that it may be possible to have a reliable reanalysis that draws a different conclusion than the original published study and that an expert can make unsupported assumptions in connection with doing an “informational” reanalysis.  It offered that “[t]hese inquiries are more appropriately left to the jury.”  We disagree and think the broader context has to be considered.  A plaintiff’s expert offered on the epidemiologic evidence who cannot offer a reliable opinion that there is an association between the exposure and the type of injury the plaintiff claims, let alone that there is a causal relationship, should not be talking to the jury about anything.  A plaintiff’s expert offered on the epidemiologic evidence who can offer a reliable opinion that there is a causal relationship between the exposure and the type of injury the plaintiff claims can be allowed to discuss the various analyses she did to form that opinion.  And the defense can cross-examine her on whether some of her analysis was result-driven for-litigation drivel or based on unsupported assumptions.  A jury can hear that sort of back and forth and decide what weight to give to the expert’s testimony on general causation.  However, no trial court should abrogate its gatekeeping role and let juries hear about reanalysis of published studies unless plaintiffs have reliable evidence of general causation in the first place.  I guess we prefer the opinions of the district court, which took its gatekeeping seriously, even if it let plaintiffs take a few shots at entry.

 

Parties often file motions in limine on fairly case-specific issues, building on the history of discovery and motions practice in the case.  Applying a ruling on in limines from one case to another can be a dicey proposition as potentially significant differences in the facts, law, claims and defenses asserted, and other rulings can usually be identified.  Plus, many pre-trial decisions on evidence do not last once doors get opening and evidence can be cumulative, among other reasons why judges’ minds change.  Still, we do posts on rulings on motions in limine that we guess might have some relevance to other cases our readers have.  When we do, we can be hamstrung by the limited information in these opinions on the facts, allegations, and other rulings, such as rulings on motions for summary judgment that would typically be rendered before the in limines are decided.

In In re Depakote, No. 15-CV-702-NJR-SCW, 2017 WL 2126837, *2 (S.D. Ill. May 16, 2017), we have rulings on a grab bag of motions in limine after the court issued partial summary judgment for the drug manufacturing defendant based on “preemption of label changes related to development delay” after fetal exposure of the medication.  If this summary judgment ruling sounds familiar, then you might need a hobby.  You also might have read any number of our posts on the Rheinfrank case and the ultimate affirmance of its preemption decision and defense verdict by the Sixth Circuit.  Like here, here and here.  As we said of the appellate decision, “The court held, ‘[g]iven, then, that as of 2008 the FDA did not believe the state of the data supported a developmental delay warning, it stands to reason that as of 2003, with even less data to go on, the FDA would similarly have rejected a developmental delay warning.’ Thus, Rheinfrank joins those courts that have drawn a preemptive line barring all plaintiffs who used a drug prior to an FDA insufficient evidence decision concerning the risk at issue.”  We also wondered how the case got to a jury given trial court’s preemption decision and the requirements of Ohio law.  We have similar wonderment at the instant case, which involved 2006 fetal exposure.  The decision is sparse on facts, but it is hard to imagine a viable product liability claim for the plaintiff’s injury when plaintiff cannot prove that the label in place when the drug was prescribed to the mother should have said something different about the risk of the injury in question.  Some sort of warnings claim seems to be pending, along with a claim for punitive damages.

With that background, we turn to the subset of the 28 total motions in limine that we think matter most.  First, consistent with the preemption ruling and the applicable regulation, plaintiff could not preclude the manufacturer from explaining that a proposed change to the label through the CBE regulation is still subject to FDA’s decision to accept, reject, or modify the proposed change.  2017 WL 2126837, *2.  What the CBE regulation has to do with plaintiff’s surviving warnings claim or whether it could have used (e.g., based on new evidence of safety) is unclear. Second, plaintiff’s red herring argument about whether FDA is required to do its own post-marketing studies did not preclude the defendant from presenting evidence that it followed labeling regulations.  Third, while the court allowed some speculative evidence from the plaintiff’s mother in connection with the inquiry on proximate cause for failure to warn—which should not happen unless a different developmental delay warning has been articulated—this opened the door to some amount of evidence on what she knew and how she behaved. Id. at **2-3.

As to the defendant’s motions, the post-conception labeling and regulatory communications were excluded and defendant agreed not to raise pre-conception discussions with FDA about labeling changes that were not yet approved. Id. at *3.  (With the limited information presented in the opinion, we cannot say if there was evidence that FDA rejected or discouraged whatever labeling change plaintiff was allowed to urge in the case.)  The court also excluded a 2009 FDA alert about the risk of birth defects with the drug, although plaintiff was allowed to discuss any pre-conception studies that went into the alert. Id. at *4.  Limiting warnings evidence to what existed before the prescription at issue makes sense, but it also makes sense that there needs to be a claim based on what the warnings should have said instead at that point.  Along those lines, plaintiff was not allowed to argue that the drug should have been contraindicated for use in pregnancy because plaintiff offered no expert who disclosed such an opinion. Id. (And such an opinion would have had some preemption problems, we think.)  Plaintiff was allowed, however, to offer evidence about foreign labels for the drug in place before plaintiff’s conception, holding that the manufacturer’s knowledge of these labels was relevant to its duty to warn. Id. at **7-8.  Breaking somewhat from its previously firm line on the irrelevance of the post-conception evidence to the warnings claim, the court did not foreclose the possibility that some post-conception marketing materials could be relevant if “they contain pre-2006 facts.” Id. at *6.  Again, we would think the pre-2006 facts would need to relate to whatever about the 2006 warnings for developmental delay that plaintiff was allowed to claim should have been different.

There was one last ruling that bears some discussion.  The defendant had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a very, very large fine related to allegations of off-label promotion for use of the drug for schizophrenia and elderly dementia, which were not labeled indications. Id. at *9.  The plaintiff’s mother did not use the drug for these conditions and there was no evidence to “connect these activities with the 2006 Depakote teratogenicity warning.” Id. So, there was far too much prejudice compared to the probative value to let the jury hear about the plea or fines.  However, plaintiff was allowed to “introduce evidence regarding the off-label marketing and sales efforts . . . regarding bipolar disorder,” which was an indication added during 2006 (based on our quick look). Id.  The court saw this evidence as supporting plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.  It seems to us that a plaintiff’s punitive damages evidence is not relevant unless it tends to show that the underlying conduct giving rise to liability was done with the requisite intent.  It does not sound like there is any connection between an alleged, non-preempted issue with the 2006 warnings for developmental delay and any off-label promotion issue, but maybe that link was just not spelled out in the opinion.

 

Charges of discovery abuse get thrown around frequently in product liability litigation.  We have not done a scientific survey, but we guess that such charges are levied against the manufacturer defendants more often than against individual plaintiffs.  For one thing, seeking burdensome discovery, and then discovery on discovery, has been in the product liability plaintiff game plan for a long time.  There also tends to be more discovery that a defendant could produce—and, therefore, be accused on wrongfully withholding—than a plaintiff could produce.  There is also the practical consideration that large manufacturers tend to have the financial wherewithal to pay fees when ordered and contingency plaintiffs do not—although the lawyers who front the money for those plaintiffs and make the decisions about how to proceed in discovery typically do.  While there are occasions where courts require plaintiffs and their lawyers to pay substantial defense costs because of bad conduct in discovery or in the litigation more broadly, an argument about how to calculate fees to be awarded for discovery abuse is something that we generally hope to avoid.  It is not quite up there with arguing about the maximum acceptable ratio of punitive to compensatory damages that can be awarded, but it still makes us a little uncomfortable.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 581 U.S. __ (2017), slip op., involves a very large award of fees based on the district court’s conclusion that the manufacturer defendant in a product liability case had intentionally withheld important internal testing documents.  The plaintiffs did not learn about the documents until after they had settled, when a reference appeared in a newspaper article about another similar case.  Because the case had resolved, the late application to shift costs and fees appealed to the court’s inherent authority.  Using that authority, the court not only determined that the defendant had engaged in bad faith discovery for years, but that it should pay the plaintiff $2.7 million for all costs and fees since the initial “dishonest discovery response.” Slip op. at 3.  It specifically determined that egregious conduct by a party negates the typical requirement that fees be limited to those caused by the sanctionable conduct. Id. As a back-up in case the Court of Appeals reduced the award, the court determined that the costs and fees excluding what plaintiffs estimated they incurred in pursuing other defendants and in proving medical damages, would be $2 million. Id. at 4.  (We find the whole concept of the fees incurred in the context of a presumably contingency fee representation somewhat bizarre.  Did the plaintiffs’ lawyers actually charge more than $2.7 million in costs and fees to their clients when the proceeds of the settlement(s) were divided up?)  The Court of Appeals affirmed the full amount and the Supreme Court granted cert.

The Haeger Court started by distinguishing between sanctions that compensate and sanctions that punish.  The latter can only be awarded if the trial court provides the “procedural guarantees applicable in criminal cases, such as a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard of proof.” Id.at 6 (citation omitted).  (As an aside, we are not sure that each state requires such a standard of proof when punitive damages are offered, so maybe this Court would be strict in its evaluation of punitive damages.)  “When (as in this case) those criminal-type protections are missing, a court’s shifting of fees is limited to reimbursing the victim.” Id. Damages to reimburse must have been caused by the sanctionable conduct, not merely come after it started.

The court’s fundamental job is to determine whether a given legal fee—say, for taking a deposition or drafting a motion—would or would not have been incurred in the absence of the sanctioned conduct. The award is then the sum total of the fees that, except for the misbehavior, would not have occurred.

Id. at 7-8 (citation omitted).  The court has some leeway in making large sanction award as long as the touchstone is causation.  A plaintiff can be hit for all costs of a defending case initiated in “complete bad faith,” such as we have seen relatively recently. Id. at 8.  Sanctions can also be based on the court’s assessment of whether failure to disclose “evidence fatal to its position” affected the timing (but not amount) of settlement. Id. at 8-9.

In Haeger, the trial court did not apply a but-for causation test to its damages calculation, so it will have to do it over with the right standard (unless it determines that there was some sort of waiver).  While we do not know what the amount of the sanction will be on remand, we do have an inkling that the damages imposed for discovery misconduct will tend to be less if the Haeger standards are followed in other cases.  In a case where a fundamental lie by the plaintiff—claiming to have used the defendant’s product, claiming legal authority to initiate a suit, claiming no knowledge of the injury or its cause until shortly before bringing suit—caused a case to be brought or stick around, some bold judges can still impose significant sanctions following Haeger’s principles.

 

Earlier this week, we discussed how the presentation of the federal question of express preemption from the face of a complaint can lead to removal.  Part of why the defendant drug or device manufacturer may prefer federal court over state court is that the belief that the chances of winning on preemption are better in federal court.  On the other hand, we have described many instances where federal courts mess up their preemption analysis by presuming that state law imposes the duty that plaintiff claims does not conflict with FDA obligations or by extending state law in new directions to provide a basis for a parallel claim, Erie restraint notwithstanding.  It may be that state court judges are less likely to impose duties not recognized explicitly in higher court decisions.

Tibbe v. Ranbaxy, Inc., No. C-16o472, 2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 1139 (Ohio App. Mar. 29, 2017), is a case that stayed in state court despite the explicit claims that the defendants—the generic drug manufacturer and the non-diverse pharmacy defendant—violated the FDCA in various ways.  On its basic facts and history, the case had the hallmarks of a case pursued in disregard of controlling law.  A typical warnings claim that information in the generic drug label about the risk that allegedly befell plaintiff was insufficient should not fly post-Mensing.  A claim predicated on defrauding the FDA should not fly post-Buckman.  Claims against the pharmacy that it should be liable for nothing more than filling a prescription with the generic form of the particular antibiotic (presumably as required by plaintiff’s insurance) should not fly under Ohio law.  It should not have been enough to defeat a motion to dismiss for plaintiff to claim that discovery might help them determine if the generic drug’s label was different than the reference drug’s label.  After the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Fulgenzi v. Pliva, 711 F.3d 578 (6th Cir. 2013), discussed here, this is something that can and should be determined before suing.  Even though Fulgenzi held that there is exception to Mensing’s preemption of warnings claims for generic drugs where there has been a failure to update, the plaintiff there lost because the prescriber did not review the label.  So, you would think some pre-suit investigation into the labels of the reference drug and the generic drug and the prescriber’s practices should be done in determining if there is a good faith basis to plead a non-preempted claim.  Maybe that is just our silly defense-sided way of thinking.

Regardless, in Tibbe, the plaintiff got her discovery and the preemption issues were presented again on motion for summary judgment.  Despite plaintiff’s earlier protestations, the labels were actually the same during the relevant time periods, including the language as to the risk of the condition that plaintiff claimed to have developed from the medication, so Mensing applied and Fulgenzi did not.  2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 1139, *10.  The intermediate appellate court reviewed the grant of summary judgment de novo.  Even though the Sixth Circuit had carved out an exception for non-preempted generic drug warnings claims in Fulgenzi, later the same year it recognized in Strayhorn v. Wyeth Pharms., Inc., 737 F.3d 378, 391 (6th Cir. 2013), discussed here, that Mensing had broad application to “claims that the generic manufacturers failed to provide additional warnings beyond that which was required by federal law of the brand-name manufacturer,” no matter how the claims were couched. Id. at *18.  Faced with this law and the factual record on sameness, plaintiff came up with an argument that we do not recall seeing before.  She claimed that there was a “duty to warn consumers of the generic version of the drug that they cannot bring a state-law failure-to-warn claim when their prescriptions are filled with Ranbaxy’s generic minocycline and the labeling is that of the RLD.” Id. at *19.  In other words, the plaintiff claimed the manufacturer had to give legal advice—not just legal advice, but legal advice about Mensing that was contrary to the position plaintiff advocated.

This is where being in state court maybe helped the defendants.  The court did not have to engage in much of an analysis to see whether there was already a duty to do what the plaintiff wanted and did not even consider making up a new duty.  The duty to warn under the Ohio Product Liability Act related to “the risks associated with the product.” Id. at *20.  “There is no corresponding duty to warn a consumer of her legal rights or the prospective outcome of litigation should she decide to sue a drug manufacturer at a future point in time.  Thus, a claim based on that theory would not be available under Ohio law.” Id. at **20-21.  Any warnings claim based on actual Ohio law conflicted with federal law and was preempted.

If you have been following along for a while, then you have surely run across our posts making some combination of the following points:  1) design defect claims rarely make sense for a drug because changing the design in some material way will usually make it a different drug, 2) such design defect claims, if recognized by state law, will usually be preempted because FDA approval of a different drug cannot be assumed, and 3) courts really should analyze conflict preemption by first determining that there is an actual state law duty that has been asserted or supported (depending on the procedural posture).  One such post walked through why it took so long until a circuit court held that a design defect claim with a prescription drug was preempted.   That case, Yates, has been followed a number of times, including on motions to dismiss, but there are still some glitches.

The decision in Young v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., No. 4:16-CV-00108-DMB-JMV, 2017 WL 706320 (D. Miss. Feb. 22, 2017), counts as a glitch on the preemption front even though the court dismissed (without prejudice) the design defect claim and eight of the nine other claims asserted.  The plaintiff claimed to have suffered ketoacidosis and renal failure from taking a prescription diabetes medication right around the time FDA issued a Public Health Advisory about the risk of ketoacidosis for the class of medications, SGLT-2 inhibitors, to which it belonged.  Several months later, the drug’s label was revised to include warnings about ketoacidosis and urosepsis, a blood infection stemming from a urinary tract infection.  Plaintiff claimed that the inherent design of the drug, like all SGLT-2 inhibitors, created a risk of ketoacidosis.  When plaintiff sued, she asserted a wide range of claims and defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds.  We will address only some of them.

Part of our point here is that the order can matter.  We do not have the briefs, so all we can go off of here is the opinion.  After the preliminary issue of whether common law claims are subsumed by the Mississippi Product Liability Act—the four here were—the court starts off the meat of the analysis with this:  “The defendants argue that Young’s claim for defective design must fail because Young has failed to plead a feasible design alternative and because federal law preempts the design defect claims.” Id. at *5. So, what gets analyzed first? Preemption. (Remember, federal courts are supposed to try to resolve disputes on nonconstitutional grounds if they can.) In so doing, the court has to hold out as unresolved whether Mississippi law imposes the very duties that might create the conflict leading to preemption. As the court recognized at the end of its, to us, flawed preemption analysis:

If there is no state law duty, the state law cause of action must certainly fail but there can be no conflict so as to justify preemption. Put differently, the absence of a state law duty is fatal to a claim but not under the doctrine of conflict preemption.

Id. at *8.  This logic suggests that the court needs to decide first whether there is a state law duty to do what the plaintiff urges was necessary.  Because the court never determined that there was such a duty, the whole discussion of preemption seems like a bunch of dictum to us.

Continue Reading Another Court Tackles Prescription Drug Design Defect

In the aftermath of Levine, with its generous interpretation of the CBE regulation and its novel “clear evidence” standard, we wondered how long it would be until we saw a court holding that a failure to warn claim with a branded prescription drug was preempted.  Courts were chilled for a while, but eventually the right sort of cases found their way to judges who understood preemption.  Now, we have a pretty big list of decisions finding preemption of such claims, along with decisions exhibiting supportive reasoning.  We are not yet at the point where preemption of failure to warn claims with branded prescription drugs—for a long time, the core claim in the biggest litigations in our bailiwick—is no longer news.  Preemption is still the exception—limited to cases with a strong regulatory history of FDA rejecting the warning plaintiff wanted—rather than the rule, particularly when it comes to favorable appellate decisions.

Rheinfrank v. Abbott Labs., Inc., __ Fed. Appx. __, 2017 WL 680349 (6th Cir. Feb. 21, 2017), is another favorable appellate decision on preemption.  You may recognize the name—especially if you are a blog aficionado—from our prior posts on the case.  We posted on partial summary judgment being granted as to part of the failure to warn claims being offered—on preemption—and the punitive damages claim—on lack of proof of relevant FDA fraud to meet the exception under the Ohio Product Liability Act provision generally precluding punitives for FDA-approved drugs.  We posted on the expansion of the preemption ruling on motion to reconsider to include design defect.  (These garnered an honorable mention in our list of the best decisions of 2015.)  We even posted on motions in limine rulings.  Even with all of those posts, a brief recap of the facts might help.  The minor plaintiff’s mother took the prescription anti-seizure medication at issue for fifteen years, including through four pregnancies, before she became pregnant with plaintiff.  She kept taking the medication at issue, along with another anti-seizure medication she had been taking, through the birth of plaintiff, who was diagnosed with “physical deformities and cognitive disabilities, including Fetal Valproate Syndrome.”  2017 WL 680349, *1.  The label for the medication at issue had long featured a black box warning and other warnings about birth defects, focusing on neural tube defects like spina bifida and discouraging use during pregnancy unless use of the medications “are clearly shown to be essential in the management of their seizures.” Id. at *2.  Over the course of seven years after plaintiff’s birth, FDA refused the manufacturer’s repeated efforts to revise the label to address developmental delays in offspring based on data from a study that was ultimately published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Id. at **2-4.  A revision of the labeling was ultimately submitted by CBE and accepted by FDA in 2011. Id. at *4.  The prescriber back in 2003 and 2004 testified that she was aware of the black box warning on birth defects, would have relayed it to plaintiff, and would not have relied on other materials outside the label. Id. at *2.

Somehow, on this record, the plaintiff got to trial.  Under the logic of “all’s well that ends well,” we will limit our rant on this point.  After all, we have discussed other birth defect cases that got to trial despite obvious issues, resulted in big verdicts, and got affirmed on appeal. Rheinfrank proceeded to trial under the portion of the strict liability failure to warn claim that was not preempted, a strict liability claim for failure to confirm to representations, the portion of a common law negligent failure to warn claim that was not preempted, and a common law negligent design claim.  Among the reasons why the two failure to warn claims should not have seen a court are that 1) Ohio law requires the allegedly inadequate warning to relate to the injury plaintiff claims, 2) claims relating to developmental delays (including as part of Fetal Valproate Syndrome) were preempted, and 3) the prescriber was aware of black box warnings about really serious birth defects and the recommendation against prescription during pregnancy in most situations.  It is hard to see how plaintiff mustered evidence of proximate cause—that is, that a proposed (non-preempted) alternative warning as to a risk of an injury the plaintiff had (based on evidence that existed when the prescription was written) would have changed the prescriber’s decision to prescribe—to survive summary judgment.  Based on the jury instructions that plaintiff proposed at trial, it seems like a broader discussion of risks and the impact of different warnings about risks was permitted than maybe should have been, which is often a reason why failure to warn claims get past summary judgment.  Given that the prescriber denied reliance on any representations outside the label, it is hard to see how that claim got to the jury.  As for the negligent design claim, it is hard to see how the same reasoning for preempting the strict liability design claim would not have applied or how a design of the drug—without being a different drug—that lacked the same birth defect risk could have been offered.  Anyway, the trial judge may have known what was coming, because the jury listened to the just about the best plaintiff could offer and returned a defense verdict on all counts after two weeks.

Continue Reading Sixth Circuit Affirms Branded Drug Preemption and Trial Win

We have posted several times in the last few years (like here, here, here, and here) about cases alleging birth defects from maternal SSRI use during pregnancy.  Perhaps because of the inherent sympathy for the plaintiff (offspring), it seems that plaintiffs in birth defect cases get extra chances to prove that have enough science to support their claims.  Science in this area is undoubtedly complicated.  For one thing, while ontogeny does not always recapitulate phylogeny, fetal development of placental mammals (of which humans are a relatively recently evolved species) varies, so extrapolation from animal studies on teratogenic effects is even harder than with studies of direct effects on animals.  For another, ethical considerations generally preclude prospective clinical trials designed to study teratogenic effects.  FDA’s treatment of drug labeling on the risks of teratogenic effects has reflected some of this dynamic.

Litigations pursuing birth defect claims seem to follow their own dynamic.  Despite the oft-cited caution from Rosen v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., 78 F.3d 316, 319 (7th Cir. 1996), that “the courtroom is not the place for scientific guesswork, even of the inspired sort.  Law lags science; it does not lead it,” it often seems like cases are pursued before there is science to support them, particularly if specificity of drug, dosage, and injury is going to be required.  This may be due to the impact of statutes of limitations.  It may also be because some courts are lenient on admissibility of causation evidence and there can be years from filing a case a case until Daubert (or equivalent) motions are decided.  Another dynamic seems to be that the only proof as to whether the plaintiff’s mother took the drug during the relevant time can be her word, unless the plaintiff’s expert can argue that the birth defect can itself count as proof of exposure.  We also sometimes see that general causation can be a harder concept for courts to understand than it should be.

Looking through our particular lens, we see all of this in K.E. v. Glaxosmithkline LLC, No. 3:14-cv-1294(VAB), 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13705 (D. Conn. Feb. 1, 2017), a case that came to the correct result—causation opinions excluded—but took an overly charitable route in arriving there.  The case alleged that maternal use of the defendant’s SSRI during the first trimester of her pregnancy with plaintiff in 2001 caused him to develop a bicuspid aortic valve and accompanying regurgitation.  The plaintiff was diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve in September 2010 (after evaluation following his father’s diagnosis with his own heart condition), by which time the drug’s label had been revised to reflect the pregnancy category D—“adverse reaction data from investigational or marketing experience or studies [of the drug] in humans”—and the manufacturer had sent a dear healthcare provider letter describing the basis for the change. Id. at **16-18.  The purported prescribing physician testified that he would not have prescribed the drug to a patient whom he suspected was pregnant or recommended it for a pregnant woman based on the label as it was in 2001. Id. at **16-17.  We say “purported prescribing physician” because he denied prescribing the drug to plaintiff’s mother until after the plaintiff was born, which is what his records and pharmacy records—but not plaintiff’s mother’s testimony—showed. Id. at **9-12.  More on that later.  After the bicuspid valve diagnosis, plaintiff’s records suggested that his mother had used the drug during pregnancy and his mother—plaintiff was still a minor—thought that there was a relationship.  This was reinforced by a lawyer advertisement on television trolling for plaintiffs and she contracted and signed up with a law firm to pursue a lawsuit over plaintiff’s bicuspid aortic valve by September 2011. Id. at **18-19.  Even though the statute of limitations in Connecticut for claims like this was two years, plaintiff waited until late July 2014—close to four years after the diagnosis—to sue.  Within a year—pretty fast for such cases—the manufacturer moved to exclude plaintiff’s sole causation expert and for summary judgment on statute of limitations, lack of causation, and other problems with plaintiff’s proof.  The decision we are discussing followed more than eighteen months later.

Continue Reading Unreliable Expert Causation Evidence Ends Birth Defect Case

It seems that we have posted hundreds of times about attempts to impose liability on the manufacturer of a PMA device that a doctor chose to use off-label.  Recently, a bunch of those have involved Infuse.  Cales v. Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc., No. 2015-CA-001103-MR, 2017 Ky. App. LEXIS 10 (Ky. Ct. App. Jan. 13, 2017), involves claims against a hospital over alleged off-label use of Infuse by a doctor there.  (The decision gives no indication of a specific alleged injury from the use.)  Why sue the hospital?  Maybe to keep the case against the manufacturer in state court.  Maybe to pursue someone else when the claims against the manufacturer are preempted.  The problem for the plaintiff is that she needs a viable claim against the hospital, at least something that can get by a motion to dismiss.  She offered three claims (two product liability and one medical negligence) premised on the hospital’s alleged knowledge of the possibility of off-label use, and the trial court dismissed them all.

Unfortunately for the hospital, the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed as to one of the claims.  Product liability claims against the manufacturer of this PMA device have, as the court noted, “been mostly unsuccessful based on federal pre-emption.” Id. at *10.  Plaintiff claimed that preemption does not apply to such claims when made against a healthcare provider.  “This distinction is of no avail.” Id. at *11.  As the court analyzed it, consistent with the majority position, express preemption for PMA devices is based on the device, not how it is used or who uses it.  It stands to reason that strict liability product liability claims about the design and warnings of a PMA device are expressly preempted too.  This may seem obvious, but we think it is the first ruling of its kind in favor of a hospital.  That may be because strict liability claims against hospitals are generally unavailable.

Framing those claims as negligence does not help under the Kentucky Product Liability Act.  Among other things, a distributor or “middleman” is not liable simply based on knowing that there may be off-label use, which is not the same thing as knowing the product is in a defective condition.  Id. at **12-13.

Medical negligence predicated on the hospital not telling the plaintiff that her doctor planned to use the device off-label is neither preempted by the MDA—FDA does not regulate the practice of medicine—nor covered by the Kentucky Product Liability Act.  Kentucky law imposes a duty on hospitals to obtain informed consent from patients in connection with procedures to be performed.  Id. at **15-16.  In essence, the consent process is supposed to inform the patient of the “procedure[,] acceptable alternative procedures or treatments and substantial risks and hazards inherent in the proposed treatment or procedures.”  Id. at *15.  In the context of a motion to dismiss, the Cales appellate court viewed that whether there was a need to inform a patient of off-label us was a question of fact to be addressed as the case progresses and resurrected the medical negligence claim.  Id. at *17.  Not having the complaint in front of us, it is hard to say if there was any allegation of failing to inform the plaintiff of inherent substantial risks and hazards, it is hard to say whether this was a correct result.  We can say, however, as the court acknowledged in its discussion of the product liability claims, that off-label use does not necessarily involve excess risks compared to on-label use.  It may be possible to meet the state law requirements for proper consent without ever mentioning the loaded term “off-label.”  That is why other courts have held that there is no duty to warn that a planned treatment is off-label.

Ponder the following:  A man attends an exercise class at a facility run by a local religious institution.  Assume that he belonged to this facility, wanted to attend an exercise class because his fitness was less than optimal, and was informed of the need to get medical advice before starting a new and potentially demanding exercise program.  He had a heart attack and collapsed right after leaving the class.  Assume that the heart attack was not a total surprise given his health, but that he had not had a heart attack before and had not informed the people running the class of any particular risk.  The class instructor rushed to the man’s aid while others called 911.  The instructor was certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (“CPR”) and did her best to help the man.  When paramedics arrived, they assumed care of the man, but he died despite their best efforts.

Based on these facts and assumptions, answer this question:

Who should the man’s estate sue over his death?

A) Nobody.  B) The class instructor.  C) The religious institution.  D) The entities that operate the 911/EMT system.

If you answered other than “A,” then you might need to examine your propensity to blame others.

Add in the following to the scenario presented above:  The class instructor tending to the man did not utilize an automated external defibrillator (“AED”) that she knew was present and was certified in using.  She brought the AED to the man’s side, but elected not to use it because, in her judgment, he was having a seizure and not a heart attack.

Based on these additional facts, answer these questions:

1.  Who should the man’s estate sue over his death?

A) Nobody.  B) The class instructor.  C) The religious institution.  D) The entities that operate the 911/EMT system.  E) The company that sold the AED and offered training to purchasers.

2.  If the man’s estate already sued the religious institution over his death, who should the defendant bring in via third-party complaint?

A)  Nobody.  B)  The class instructor.  C) The entities that operate the 911/EMT system.  D) The company that sold the AED and offered training to purchasers.

In Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church, No. E2015-01827-SC-R11-CV, 2016 Tenn. LEXIS 920 (Tenn. Dec. 22, 2016), the estate sued the church that ran the gym and then both turned their attention to the seller of the medical device that was not used.  It is often said that bad cases make bad law, but sometimes egregiously over-reaching cases can make good law.  Ultimately, Wallis fits into the latter category.  A contrary result, which would have allowed a negligence or contract claim against the seller of a device that was not used with the decedent, would have been bad, maybe bad enough to have been mentioned in our bottom ten post last week.

Continue Reading Decision Limiting Duties regarding Automated External Defibrillators Does Not Shock The Conscience

Devoted as we are to the defense of manufacturers of prescription drugs and medical devices, we have often advocated for the full implication of the fundamental—to us, at least—requirements that warnings claims focus on the decision making of the learned intermediary and that proximate cause matters.  One implication is that heeding presumptions typically make little sense for claims about these products.  It is one thing to say that a plaintiff should be allowed to proceed with a warnings claim when a prescriber is truly unavailable to provide testimony—like by dying before the plaintiff knew he had a claim—and the alleged missing warning would have clearly contraindicated the plaintiff from receiving the prescription product.  In such a case, it might make sense to presume, absent contrary evidence, that the physician would have heeded the warning and not prescribed the product to the plaintiff.  In just about every other prescription drug and device case we can imagine, the heeding presumption does not make sense.

We feel the same way about a post-sale duty to warn.  Not only do such duties run contrary to the typical focus in warnings cases on the notice to the manufacturer of potential risks before the product leaves its control (or is prescribed to plaintiff), but the proximate cause inquiry can quickly become an exercise in layered speculation.  Cases acknowledging such a post-sale duty have typically involved situations where the seller had a continuing relationship with the purchaser, with an obvious route for relaying additional information about the product in a way that allows a jury to evaluate whether injury would have been avoided.  In prescription drug and device cases, there tends not to be any direct relationship at any time and the manufacturer does not know the names or addresses of patients using its products.  Over time, patients move, change their physicians, and even see physicians for reasons unrelated to the reason they were prescribed a drug or device in the past.  Over time, manufacturers also stop selling specific products or product lines and may even go out of business.  When it comes to drugs with alleged remote effects or devices that are implanted for many years, these real world considerations make potentially unlimited post-sale duties to warn a folly.  We could go on, but we will not.

Continue Reading Heeding Presumption Only Goes So Far In Post-Sale Warning Case