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JAMES M. BECK is Counsel resident in the Philadelphia office of ReedSmith. He is the author of, among other things, Drug and Medical Device Product Liability Handbook (2004) (with Anthony Vale). He wrote the seminal law review article on off-label use cited by the Supreme Court in Buckman v. Plaintiffs Legal Committee. He has written more amicus briefs for the Product Liability Advisory Council than anyone else in the history of the organization, and in 2011 won PLAC's highest honor, the John P. Raleigh award. He has been a member of the American Law Institute (ALI) since 2005. He is the long-time editor of the newsletter of the ABA's Mass Torts Committee.  He is vice chair of the Class Actions and Multi-Plaintiff Litigation SLG of DRI's Drug and Device Committee.  He can be reached at jmbeck@reedsmith.com.  His LiinkedIn page is here.

We immediately called for the further appeal and reversal of the hideous decision in In re Fosamax (Alendronate Sodium) Products Liability Litigation, 852 F.3d 268 (3d Cir. 2017).  However, we’re just bloggers.  Thus, we were greatly pleased when the United States Supreme Court, on December 8, 2017, requested the views of the Solicitor General on whether to grant certiorari in the Fosamax appeal, now known as Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, No. 14-1900 (U.S.).

We’re even more pleased, now that we have read the Solicitor General’s responsive brief, which we have just received.  Getting right to the point – the bottom line:

In the view of the United States, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted.

United States Amicus br. at 1.  Even though “[n]o circuit conflict yet exists,” the issue in its MDL context is sufficiently “significant” to grant certiorari now.  Id. at 12.

Although the question is close, . . . this Court should grant certiorari.  The underlying issue in this preemption case is a significant one:  whether the meaning and effect of an FDA labeling decision is a question of law for courts to resolve or a question of fact for lay juries to determine.  The petition cleanly presents that issue in an MDL context in which hundreds of separate cases . . . turn on its proper resolution.

Id. at 22-23.

First, the Solicitor General believes that preemption is a legal issue, not one for the jury, as the Third Circuit held in its unprecedented ruling:

The court of appeals erred in holding that a jury must determine whether FDA’s . . . decision − which declined to approve petitioner’s proposal to revise [the drug’s] Warnings and Precautions section . . . − preempted respondents’ state-law failure-to-warn claims arising from that same type of injury.  Where, as here, FDA renders a decision declining to approve a drug-labeling change, the interpretation of that administrative decision and its significance for a failure-to-warn claim are legal questions for a court to resolve, not factual questions for a jury.

Id. at 12.  “The meaning and effect of such agency action is a legal question within the exclusive province of a court.”  Id. at 13.  “Judges, rather than lay juries, are best suited to evaluate the scope of an agency’s legal determination in light of the relevant statutory and regulatory context.”  Id. at 14.

Second, the Solicitor General believes that the FDA’s rejection of the defendant’s request for a label change was “clear evidence” supporting preemption:

[B]ecause FDA’s decision here prevented petitioner from modifying the relevant labeling before late 2010, the court of appeals erred in rejecting petitioner’s impossibility-preemption defense.

Id. at 12.  “Nothing is ‘hypothetical’ about FDA’s actual 2009 decision in this case.”  Id. at 16.

[Levine] did not resolve how to determine the meaning and effect of an actual FDA labeling-supplement decision. . . .  [T]he court of appeals erred in transplanting [Levine’s] discussion about a hypothetical regulatory scenario to support a requirement for “clear evidence” about the scope and effect of the actual agency labeling decision in this case.

Id. at 16-17 (emphasis added).  The FDA was not quibbling about language when it rejected the label change at issue, but instead the “FDA’s decision thus was based on the lack of adequate data to support a warning.”  Id. at 21.  “Indeed, nearly a year later, FDA announced − after reviewing further data − that it had yet to find any ‘clear connection’” between the drug and the alleged risk.  Id. at 22.

Third, “clear evidence” was used in Levine “not in its ‘strict evidentiary sense’ but merely as a ‘useful reminder’ that a general presumption concerning a legal interpretation should control if substantial doubt exists.”  Id. at 18.  Thus, the Third Circuit’s “clear and convincing” evidentiary gloss in Fosamax was also error.  Rather, “to establish impossibility preemption, a name-brand drug manufacturer cannot rely on speculation or merely plausible interpretations of ambiguous features of FDA’s regulatory framework and practices.  Id. at 18-19.

Now we wait. If the Court grants review, Albrecht will likely be the most significant preemption decision since Levine itself.

We bloggers don’t generally consider the Drug and Device Law sandbox to extend to illegal drugs.  We regard that as a completely separate can of worms.  But what of a drug – like marijuana – that’s in between being legal and being illegal?  In an increasing number of states, marijuana’s current situation is a bit like Schroedinger’s famous cat, legal and illegal at the same time depending on who’s enforcing what law.

The same could be said of sports betting – at least until last week, when the United States Supreme Court decided Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn., ___ S. Ct. ___, 2018 WL 2186168 (U.S. May 14, 2018).  The federal government had banned sports betting (except in Nevada), but a number of states (including New Jersey, the real plaintiff) were champing at the bet to legalize – and reap tax revenues from – gambling on sporting events.

The Supreme Court basically said that the federal government couldn’t force the states to abstain from legalizing sports betting.  The feds could not “commandeer” state law enforcement and require them to keep sports betting illegal:

The [statutory] provision at issue here − prohibiting state authorization of sports gambling − violates the anticommandeering rule. That provision unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do. . . .  [S]tate legislatures are put under the direct control of Congress.  It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.

Murphy, 2018 WL 2186168, at *13.  See Id. at *17 (“Just as Congress lacks the power to order a state legislature not to enact a law authorizing sports gambling, it may not order a state legislature to refrain from enacting a law licensing sports gambling.”). The federal scheme “would break down if a State broadly decriminalized sports gambling.”  Id. at *19.

The Court viewed both affirmative and negative demands that the states do what the feds want as barred by that principle:

Here is an illustration.  [The statute] includes an exemption for [Nevada], but suppose Congress did not adopt such an exemption.  Suppose Congress ordered States with legalized sports betting to take the affirmative step of criminalizing that activity and ordered the remaining States to retain their laws prohibiting sports betting. There is no good reason why the former would intrude more deeply on state sovereignty than the latter.

Id.  This example certainly seems to resembles certain noises emanating from the current Department of Justice that it might seek to roll back state legalization of marijuana.

Now, let’s be clear, “commandeering” is not something that dissolves federal powers provided for in the constitution.  It would not allow the department to re-institute Jim Crow, let alone slavery.  Federal powers in the constitution (such as power over interstate commerce) remain:

The legislative powers granted to Congress are sizable, but they are not unlimited. The Constitution confers on Congress not plenary legislative power but only certain enumerated powers.  Therefore, all other legislative power is reserved for the States, as the Tenth Amendment confirms.  And conspicuously absent from the list of powers given to Congress is the power to issue direct orders to the governments of the States. The anticommandeering doctrine simply represents the recognition of this limit on congressional authority.

Id. at *10.  But once the state decides to legalize the activity within its borders, the feds can’t force the states to keep that activity illegal under state lawId. at *18 (“If the people of a State support the legalization of sports gambling, federal law would make the activity illegal.”).  A federal law that only operates only to “undermine[] whatever policy is favored by the people of a State” is both “perverse” and “weird.” Id. at *18.

Thus, what Murphy calls “the anticommandeering principle” is limited.  While it could well prevent DoJ from – as the “example” above indicates – “order[ing] States with legalized [marijuana] to take the affirmative step of criminalizing that activity,” id. at *13, the feds still retain the power, for example, to ban marijuana from interstate commerce.  Murphy also leaves open the possibility that a federal statute, phrased (unlike the law before the Court) explicitly in terms of federal preemption and not directed at states, might have provided means of avoiding the anticommandeering principle.  Id. at *15-16 (“every form of preemption is based on a federal law that regulates the conduct of private actors, not the States”). So that’s another possible source of federal power to continue prohibition, should Congress choose to act in that fashion.

There’s one other place where would be marijuana entrepreneurs – and states wishing to raise revenue from taxing such enterprises – might be able to put the anticommandeering principle to good use.  One big problem has been federal laws that prevent even legalized marijuana businesses from accessing the banking system.  While the feds can certainly continue that practice, whether it’s a good or bad idea, with respect to federally regulated banks, we think that Murphy casts considerable doubt on whether the federal government can tell state banks that they cannot accept deposits from marijuana businesses that the state regulating those banks has declared to be legal.

We don’t claim to know all the ins and outs of anticommandeering – a word we had never seen before reading Murphy.  But if a state, in its wisdom, chooses to legalize commerce in marijuana, it seems equally “perverse” and “weird” to require those legal businesses to bury the money they legally make in their basements rather than to deposit it in a bank regulated by the same government that legalized their activities.

 

This guest post is by Reed Smith associate Lora Spencer, who (as you might suspect) calls Texas her home.  In her first rodeo on the blog, she discusses a recent MDL decision that she thinks is a few pickles short of a barrel, and hopes it’s not a harbinger of things to come.  Not exactly a conniption fit, but close.  As always our guest posters deserve 100% of the credit (and any blame) for what they write.

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“Everything is bigger in Texas”—or is it? The plaintiffs in Aron v. Bristol-Myers Squibb, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39146 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2018), would have y’all believe that pharmaceutical manufacturer tort liability, at least, is bigger in Texas.  But, first, before getting to this “Texas Expansion,” here are some interesting “reported” facts about Texas.  Pay attention, there may be a pop quiz, if not now, perhaps at your next networking event.  Knowing such factoids will surely make your “lone star” shine brightly.

Texas is a really BIG state. Texas is ranked 2nd in the country in population and size.  Texas’s total area is twice the size of Germany (albeit half the size of Alaska).  Of 45 United States presidents – three of them hail from Texas—all of them since 1963, hence the slogan “read my lips, no new Texans.”  King Ranch, located in south Texas, is considered “the birthplace of Texas ranching” and is larger than Rhode Island.  Texas also has the most rattlesnakes of any state.  And the weight of the catfish consumed by Texans each year exceeds that of the Paris Eiffel Tower (at least the one in Texas).  “Texas is just too big,” said no Texan ever.  Apparently Aron takes the same view.

Aron purported to apply Texas law in what appears to be the first reported opinion from the Farxiga MDL.  Maybe future opinions will be better.  Aron denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ amended complaints under Rule 12(b)(6).  Id. at *9.  Farxiga has only one labeled indication—lowering blood glucose in adults with type 2 diabetes.  Id.  Because everything is bigger in Texas, so is the complaint, which included three Texas plaintiffs with no business being joined in the same complaint.  Getting a free pass on misjoinder, these three plaintiffs brought “causes of action claims, under Texas law, based on the defendants’ failure to warn of [drug] risks …, negligent testing, and gross negligence.” Id. *16.

Failure to Warn

The most important thing about Texas product liability law is that most of it is now statutory.  Under Texas law, in a products liability suit, a statutory presumption precludes a defendant drug manufacturer from being liable for failure to warn claims if its warnings were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Texas Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 82.007.  However, a plaintiff may rebut this presumption by establishing one or more of five statutory exceptions.  Id. at (b)(1-5).

In Aron, the relevant exceptions were § 82.007 (b)(1) and (3).  2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39146, at *17.  Section (b)(1) allows a plaintiff to rebut the presumption by proving fraud on the FDA—that “the defendant, before or after pre-market approval … withheld from or misrepresented to the [FDA] required information that was material and relevant to the performance of the product and causally related to the claimant’s injury.”  Civ. Prac. & Rem. § 82.007(b)(1).  Section (b)(3) avoids the presumption if the plaintiff can show off-label promotion – that “the defendant recommended, promoted, or advertised the pharmaceutical product for an indication not approved by the [FDA], the product was used as recommended, promoted or advertised; and the claimant’s injury was causally related to the recommended, promoted, or advertised use of the product.”  Id. at (b)(3).

As regular blog readers know, a claim predicated on fraud on the FDA should be preempted. Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).  Unsurprisingly, the defendants argued the FDA fraud exception is preempted by federal law. Aron, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39146, at *20.  The court noted conflicting Fifth and Second Circuit decisions concerning § 82.007(b)(1) and a similar Michigan statute. Compare Lofton v. McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharms., 672 F.3d 372 (5th Cir. 2012) (applying Texas law) (discussed here), with Desiano v. Warner Lambert & Co., 467 F.3d 85, 95 (2d Cir. 2006) (applying Michigan law), aff’d by equally divided court, 552 U.S. 440 (2008).  However, because the plaintiffs did not plead the fraud exception with “sufficient particularity,” Aron did not decide the preemption issue.  Id. at *21.  Given the other rulings in Aron, its punting on preemption is probably just as well.  In true Texas fashion, Hi-Yo Silver away!  The plaintiffs failed to rebut the presumption using §82.007 (b)(1). Id.

However, fraud on the FDA is only one of § 82.007’s five exceptions.  Properly raising any one of them will get a plaintiff past a presumption-based motion to dismiss.  Id. at *17.  Plaintiffs got away with pleading the “off-label” marketing exception, under § 82.007 (b)(3). Id. at *20.  Plaintiffs alleged:  (i) defendants promoted Farxiga to prescribing physicians for off-label uses, specifically obesity and hypertension, (ii) such off-label promotion caused the physician to prescribe Farxiga for off-label use, (iii) plaintiffs used Farxiga for off-label purposes, and (iv) off-label use caused the plaintiffs injuries.  Id. at *20-22.  Plaintiffs cited press releases, advertisements, and clinical trial protocols to support their claim that off-label marketing occurred.  Id.  However, Aron failed to discuss the pleading of causation  Not one of the various off-label statements was linked to any particular prescriber, let alone to a prescription that caused these plaintiffs’ injuries.  Never mind that physicians may, and often do, prescribe drugs for unapproved uses as part of their practice of medicine.  Aron let the plaintiffs slide on causation.  All hat and no cattle.

Negligent Testing

Aron also allowed the plaintiffs’ negligent failure to test claim to stand.  2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39146, at *22.  The plaintiffs alleged the defendants negligently failed to test Farxiga thoroughly before releasing the drug into the market, failed to analyze pre-market test results, and failed to conduct sufficient post market testing and surveillance.”  Id. at *23.  Defendants argued the plaintiffs’ negligent testing claim is “inextricably intertwined” with the plaintiffs’ failure to warn claim and is inadequately pleaded. Id. The Fifth Circuit, applying Texas law, has so held—twice.  “[A] negligent testing claim is, as a matter of Texas law, a variation of an action for failure to warn.” Dow Agrosciences LLC v. Bates, 332 F.3d 323, 333 (5th Cir. 2003) (applying Texas law), reversed on other grounds, 544 U.S. 431 (2005) (preemption).  Plaintiff’s “negligence claims, such as the alleged failure to adequately test [the product], are subsumed within” a failure to warn claim. Skotak v. Tenneco Resins, Inc., 953 F.2d 909, 912 n.5 (5th Cir. 1992) (applying Texas law).

Even though Fifth Circuit law should have controlled on this point of state law, Aron chose to follow cases that it asserted recognized “an independent cause of action based on negligent failure to test.”  Id. at *22-23.  The most significant of the three, Am. Tobacco Co. v. Grinnell, 951 S.W. 2d 420 (Tex. 1997), certainly did not.  Rather, the Texas Supreme Court’s holding was quite the opposite:

[Plaintiff’s] negligent testing claim is predicated on [defendants’] duty to test and ascertain the dangers inherent in its products about which it must warn consumers.  Because the negligent testing claim is inextricably intertwined with the [plaintiffs’] negligent failure to warn claim, we hold that summary judgment was also proper on this claim.

Id. at 437.  “Inextricably intertwined” is about as far from “an independent cause of action” as you can get.  Of the other two cases, Murthy v. Abbott Laboratories, 847 F. Supp.2d 958 (S.D. Texas 2012), is notorious for improperly construing Texas law.  The other, Romero v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2012 WL 12547449, at *4 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 31, 2012), essentially followed Murthy. Aron is another instance of improper federal court judicial activism attempting to push state (Texas) law where no state court has ever gone.

Gross Negligence

Apparently, in Texas, it is not enough just to plead negligent testing. The plaintiffs also pled gross negligence.  2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39146, at *24.  The defendants argued that “[i]t is merely a restatement of plaintiff’s deficient negligence count.” Id.  However, Aron looked to the elements of gross negligence, and held the plaintiffs sufficiently pled facts to support an inference of gross negligence.  Id. at *25.  Those facts oddly included a September 2013 “post market” study.  Id. at *26.  Supposedly, the defendants “terminated” that study in “2013 without posting any results.”  Id. at *9.  However, the FDA did not approve Farxiga until January 8, 2014. Id. at *9.  That does not sound like gross negligence, but rather a preempted fraud on the FDA claim.  Whether or not anything was “posted,” the alleged study termination occurred before the FDA’s approval of this product, so the only reporting duty was imposed by federal law—not Texas law—and it ran to the FDA.  Any public “posting” of product-related information before FDA approval would illegally promote an unapproved product, which almost certainly explains lack of any such post.

With Aron, the Farxiga MDL is not exactly off to a good start.  Will this be another instance of MDL abuse in the making?  Saddle up, and get ready for a wild ride, the prominent phrase “Everything is BIGGER in Texas” is unfortunately reflected in Aron’s approach to product liability.

Bexis has lots of opinions on what’s wrong with mass-tort (especially drug/device) MDLs.  Heck, Bexis has even proposed amendments to the MDL statutes to correct the many severe problems that exist.  Now, Congress has before it possible statutory changes (not holding our breath) and Civil Rules Committee is looking into the same problems.  Maybe something will happen, although rules changes are notoriously protracted, and the cadre of MDL judges (15 judges control 18 MDLs that account for some 47% of the entire federal civil docket) and their plaintiff-side enablers will fight any attempts to curb MDL discretionary excesses.

In the midst of all this, the Duke Law School’s ongoing MDL best practices project held an invitation-only meeting recently, and Bexis was invited as one of the defense-oriented participants. This meeting was conducted under so-called “Chatham House” rules that preclude attributing particular statements to particular persons, so this post summarizing the meeting will not be of the “he said, she said” variety.

Early Dismissal of Meritless Cases

Defense-side participants produced a plethora of statistics that, in MDL after MDL, anywhere between 20% and 45% (eliminating outliers both ways) of all filed MDL cases are ultimately dismissed because the plaintiffs do not have evidence of the most basic information imaginable:  (a) that they actually encountered the product of the defendant being sued; (b) that they suffered one of the injuries that the MDL was about; and (c) that that the timing and amount of the plaintiff’s exposure was plausible under the plaintiffs’ own causation theories.  The missing information that was discussed was not anything expert-related, just product identification, injury, and plaintiffs fitting within whatever might be the plaintiffs’ own asserted parameters of causation.

Somewhat surprisingly, the plaintiff-side participants did not dispute the basic point – that meritless plaintiffs are widespread, running into the thousands of bogus plaintiffs in the larger MDLs.  Indeed, most of the plaintiff-side speakers professed not just their recognition of the meritless claim problem, but their own annoyance at this phenomenon.  The presence of large numbers of meritless cases artificially skewed who had what say on plaintiff steering committees, which partially depend on numbers of cases.  At the back end, meritless cases produced a bunch of left-over plaintiffs, abandoned by their counsel (who never intended to try cases), bumbling around pro se.

Not one plaintiff-side speaker denied that numerous meritless cases existed in MDLs, or that the absence of effective Rule 8/12/TwIqbal procedures encouraged meritless filings.  Evidently, the “park and ride” plaintiff-side lawyers who pump and dump cases into MDLs don’t attend conferences like this, or if they do, they keep quiet.  At most, the plaintiff-side speakers tolerated bad cases because they would “all work out in the end.”

The defense side vehemently rejected that no-harm, no-foul approach.  Defense participants argued that meritless cases weren’t harmless, but rather skewed MDL litigation from beginning to end – driving up discovery costs, forcing defendants to vet cases that plaintiffs should have done before filing, complicating random plaintiff selection for bellwether trials (more about such trials, below), and inflating settlement demands.  Artificially inflated plaintiff numbers increase the psychological impact of MDLs, given how those numbers find their way into press descriptions and plaintiff solicitations.  Masses of bogus plaintiffs also prevent proper resolution of “proportionality” issues in discovery, since they inflate P-side discovery arguments.

Further, FDA regulations do not contain any “bogus” case exception that would give defendants leeway not to report such cases in their adverse event filings.  Phony cases lead to phony “signals,” since even though adverse event reporting is (according to the FDA) not supposed to establish causation, plaintiff-side experts routinely try to misuse them − and sometimes get away with doing so.  When that happens, it’s garbage in, garbage out.  Inflated plaintiff numbers lead directly to inflated reports, so that meritless cases end up supporting junk science.  This effect is magnified by pleading that would be barred by TwIqbal in non-MDL cases that, such as use of “and/or,” that purport to sue multiple defendants when they could only have used one product, so that each defendant is obligated to report the “adverse event” to the FDA.

Matters livened up a bit further, with that morning’s report from 360 on the extreme position taken by plaintiffs in the Zofran MDL were taking on discovery – that discovery rules in MDLs only apply to defendants.  They were demanding that only 8 of over 400 plaintiffs should submit to any discovery at all – giving bogus Zofran cases a free ride all the way to remand.  The Zofran plaintiffs were so over the top that they even claimed an MDL judge lacked jurisdiction to order discovery.  That’s what Joe Biden would call “malarkey,” and not a single plaintiff-side speaker defended, let alone took, that position.

The problem of widespread filing of bogus cases received the most support for (or the least opposition to) a rules change to facilitate early dismissal of meritless cases.  A rules amendment would have to be simple – not a “Lone Pine” order, but rather something much more basic.  A plausible version could be along the lines of mandatory initial discovery, which exists in “pilot project” form in both the District of Arizona and the Northern District of Illinois.  The local rules could be adapted easily enough to require production of all evidence of product identification/exposure, diagnosis of an injury, and their relative timing within a relatively short fixed period (60-90 days would seem reasonable) after filing of a complaint.  If a plaintiff couldn’t produce any facts or records that plausibly establish a claim, then the meritless action would be dismissed with prejudice.  Maybe a mandatory initial disclosure rule would be limited to MDLs above a certain threshold (100? 500? 1000?) number of plaintiffs.

Defendants might have to compromise – giving something to get something.  MDLs are notorious for imposing onerous discovery obligations on defendants, anyway, so frankly our side wouldn’t be giving up much, except for possibly timing.  One possibility, discussed at the conference in a different context, could involve early technology-assisted review of some categories of electronic documents.  We like predictive coding anyway, so as long as the timing is doable, there might be the basis of a workable compromise here.

Another possibility would be to amend Rule 20 to prohibit joinder of plaintiffs in the same complaint who have nothing in common except suing over the same product.  These multi-plaintiff, misjoined complaints are the primary way that the “park and ride” lawyers file their cases, with practically no factual information about any of the plaintiffs.  Not only do these improper plaintiffs cheat courts out of filing fees, but they burden defendants with the expense of vetting the plaintiffs’ cases.  In addition to forbidding the practice, each misjoined plaintiff could also be required to make a non-refundable deposit into the MDL plaintiffs’ common benefit fund.

Finally, the issue of statute of limitations tolling agreements came up.  There could be a legitimate problem, when a plaintiff’s lawyer finds him/herself up against the statute of limitations with a new client.  We don’t have problems with tolling agreements, as long as they’re one-off, and not an excuse for further abuse.  Tolling agreements cannot be an excuse for rampant failure to vet claims – the example given being “I have 2000 new cases, can I have a tolling agreement for two years.”  Tolling agreements are only appropriate for a short period of time.  We think that the same 60-90 day period mentioned above should be long enough to accommodate counsel who would otherwise have a legitimate need for a tolling agreement.

Interlocutory Appeal of Significant MDL Rulings

Another candidate for a rules change – one meeting with significantly more opposition from our colleagues on the other side of the “v.’ – is the interlocutory appeal of the resolution of certain “significant” motions typically made in MDLs.  Such appeals would correct an imbalance in current practice in that, if defendants win a dispositive motion, it’s an appealable final order, but if defendants lose the same motion, no appeal is available because the denial isn’t final.  Thus, the litigation continues, and the dispositive issue is appealed, if at all, years later – after a bellwether trial or a remand (in the rare event that happens).

That imbalanced access to appellate review is acceptable in an individual case, because delay caused by piecemeal appeals isn’t offset by the need to get things right, right away.  What’s acceptable in a single case, becomes a much bigger problem when the downside of an erroneous denial of a dispositive motion could dispose of hundreds or thousands of cases, particularly an appeal much further down the road adds extraneous pressure to affirm, or else a great deal of MDL activity, based on the resolution defendants contend is erroneous, goes down the drain.

Attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side – as was the case throughout the conference – were content with the status quo.  They pointed to existing certification procedures, but current procedures require the assent of the trial judge that denied the motion in the first place.  If denial is intended to force settlement, which is often the case, that assent won’t be forthcoming.  Plaintiffs pointed to the New Jersey Accutane litigation which has (in)famously been around for some fifteen years.  But that analogy is poor.  Most, if not all, of the delay in Accutane is not due interlocutory appeals, but rather from an prior judge’s extremely poor bellwether trial performance (almost every trial verdict was been reversed), or from appeals concerning the grant of dispositive motions – neither of which have any bearing on the current proposal for a Rule 23(f)-like equivalent permitting interlocutory appeals from motion denials in MDLs whether or not the MDL judge wants to allow it.

Ironically, the Rule 23(f) analogy was attacked by the plaintiff side as a bad analogy, because class actions were mostly “negative value” cases that, unlike mass torts, would go away without certification.  We think the analogy, while not perfect, is better than the other side will admit, for reasons discussed in more detail when we turn to bellwether trials.  Lawyers are, by nature, competitive, and the raised stakes of mass tort MDLs only exacerbates that tendency.  Thus, both sides – but in particular the plaintiffs – pour more money into bellwether trials than the individual cases could possibly be worth.  In that way, bellwethers become “negative value” cases, too.

Once again, a bit of serendipity strengthened the defense arguments.  Just the day before, the Fifth Circuit reversed the bellwether trial verdict in the first of several consolidated trials in the Pinnacle Hip MDL. See In re DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc., Pinnacle Hip Implant Product Liability Litigation, ___ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 1954759 (5th Cir. April 25, 2018).  This was the same MDL where the defendants had tried everything to obtain appellate review of the trial court’s erroneous rulings, including mandamus.  Now, something like seven years of MDL activity in Pinnacle Hip has come to just about naught, largely because no interlocutory appeals process existed to provide timely review of repeated erroneous rulings.

We have to admit, though, the other side has a point that it would be difficult to create a one-size-fits-all interlocutory appeal rule defining exactly what “significant” MDL rulings would be subject to its purview.  Preemption, for sure − nobody on either side disputed that a single preemption motion could be dispositive of so much (up to and including “all”) of an MDL to qualify.  Everything else was subject to considerable debate.  Some Daubert motions can have the same MDL-wide preclusive effect; our 2016 top ten cases post discusses two (Mirena and Lipitor) of these (three (Zoloft) if you count the honorable mentions), but lots of other Daubert motions in MDLs would not come close.

Then there’s everything else. Choice of law was mentioned, so were punitive damages.  The jurisdictional issue in Pinnacle Hip was critical, but most MDL judges aren’t that overreaching.  So defining “significant” for the purposes of a rules change could well pose complex problems.

Having thought about all that, however, se say, “why bother?” Let defense lawyers in the particular MDL decide.  Call it the “upon further review” rule if you want.  In the NFL, the rules allow coaches a set number of challenges to just about any on-field calls, and if the team wins a challenge they get another one, up to some absolute limit.  NFL coaches get to pick what calls they consider important enough to challenge.  Let counsel do the same for MDL interlocutory review.  Preemption orders should be appealable, and a set number (probably two or three) of other orders could be subject to interlocutory review at each separately represented defendant’s option.  If the defendant wins the appeal, it gets another challenge.

We don’t think that approach will result in an undue number of appeals – especially since the Supreme Court just reduced the appellate courts’ workload by throwing out Alien Torts Claims Act cases against corporations, creating some give.  Delay might be a more serious concern, but as with Rule 23(f), the MDL isn’t being stayed, so discovery and other activity would continue in the meantime.

Another issue raised, which would be beyond the control of the federal rules, is whether interlocutory appeals would sufficiently delay MDLs so as to encourage plaintiffs to file in state court.  News flash – plaintiffs have been avoiding federal court for as long as we can remember.  In one of Bexis’ first MDLs, some 1500 Bone Screw plaintiffs tried to hide out in state court in Tennessee (where the target defendant was “at home” jurisdictionally).  They might even have gotten away with that, had Tennessee not had an unusually short one-year personal injury statute of limitations, which tripped up plaintiffs after they agreed to a universal discovery date that was more than a year before they filed all those multi-plaintiff complaints.  See Maestas v. Sofamor Danek Group, Inc., 33 S.W.3d 805 (Tenn. 2000) (plaintiffs lose on cross-jurisdictional class action tolling; all 1500 cases dismissed).  One more reason for plaintiffs to stay out of federal court doesn’t mean anything.  If anything, avoiding federal court is harder now than before because the Supreme Court decided to enforce constitutional limits on personal jurisdiction.

Bellwether Trials

There was considerable discussion of bellwether trials, but we have doubts that rules could solve the problems that were mentioned.  Our view is to interpret the MDL statute as written, and restrict MDLs to “coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.”  28 U.S.C. §1407(a) (emphasis added).  A textualist approach to the MDL statute would, and we think should, mean no trials, “bellwether” or otherwise, in the MDL transferee court.  Simple.  No rules change needed.

But totally contrary to decades of MDL practice.  Don’t hold your breath – although if someone wants to preserve it for appeal, this issue could be the next Lexecon.

There was some discussion of how bellwether plaintiffs are selected.  The Manual for Complex Litigation favors random selection.  MCL §22.315.  We also lean towards random selection, although we recognize that the other side can game even a random system by either filing, or not filing, certain types of cases in the MDL.  So even random selection needs to be policed to prevent plaintiffs from attempting to skew the result.

We also think that, if the rules were changed to facilitate the early dismissal of facially meritless claims, that would go a long way to solving the problems with random selection.  Right now, any random selection process necessarily exposes the prevalence of meritless cases, so that plaintiffs are loathe to agree to what, abstractly, is the most statistically valid method of yielding a representative selection of cases.

Ensuring “representativeness” was also discussed, but we frankly think that’s futile.  As someone pointed out, “random does not necessarily mean representative.”  Even what might at the beginning be the most representative of cases ceases to be representative once both sides pour more resources into preparing and trying that case than it could possibly be worth if being tried outside of the MDL.  We agree with the comment of one of the plaintiff-side speakers that “spending a million to win $500,000 is not an economic business model.”  Both sides committing extraordinary resources to a bellwether trial is a sure way to ensure that the case for that reason alone ceases to have any representative value.

On the plaintiff side, keeping the business model economic, under MDL circumstances, only encourages the reduction of representativeness.  Instead, we see plaintiffs focused on “ringing the bell” – adding punitive damages or consolidated plaintiffs to the mix to make the case harder to defend.  That’s the practical (as opposed to the textual) reason we oppose bellwether trials.  At minimum, as we’ve discussed before, defendants should take care to craft any Lexecon waivers to exclude punitive damages or consolidations.  We didn’t hear any proposed rules changes that would meaningfully improve the bellwether trial system.

Third-Party Litigation Funding

The group discussed a proposal, pending in Congress, requiring automatic disclosure of third-party funding agreements.  Interestingly, plaintiff-side speakers admitted that they demand disclosure of that kind of information themselves when setting up their steering committees, because their membership must be able to “take the heat,” and lawyers controlled by a “hedge fund” can’t be shaping their strategy.  To at least some plaintiffs’ speakers, third-party funding meant “a dummy in the room and a ventriloquist outside.”  One of the judges in attendance likewise thought that disclosure of third-party funding was a good idea to prevent conflicts.  If both plaintiffs and the judiciary favor disclosure is necessary to prevent conflicts, then it is hard to justify not routinely disclosing it to all sides, as insurance is disclosed.

Proponents of such funding stated that it was only a “professionalization” of activities that had long gone on the plaintiff side of litigation.  Perhaps, but that justification brings the response of “what, then, do you have to hide?”  If third party litigation funding is truly professionalized, then again, it resembles insurance, which is subject to automatic disclosure.  To be considered “mainstream,” third-party litigation funders need to act the part.

Proponents also raised the issue of disclosure of confidential work product if funding agreements are discoverable.  This concern seems like a red herring to us, as the contracts are easily drafted to omit any attorney evaluations of litigation.

Proponents also distinguished two uses of litigation funding. The first, which is more similar to corporate litigation funding arrangements, involves loans to plaintiff-side law firms, secured either by their interests in specific litigation or by interests in their entire pending litigation inventory.  These tend to have lower interest rates and involve less influence over litigation strategies or settlement decisions.  Disclosure of such funding is, however, essential to gauging the relative resources of both sides in determining who is going to pay for what discovery in MDL situations.  Plaintiffs should not be able to play at being David when their funding lines of credit are actually Goliath-sized.

The flip side is what was sometimes referred to as “payday lending” litigation funding − where the plaintiff is receiving what amounts to an advance on possible recoveries.  A lengthy discussion was had of claimed abuses – covering the NFL concussion litigation and the recent New York Times exposé of what has gone on in the Pelvic Mesh litigation.  In either case, immediate disclosure of litigation funding agreements would have prevented, or at least reduced, improper conduct, as transparency in funding would have raised red flags about the terms and timing of the agreements in question.  Suspicious agreements could then have brought to the court’s attention, or been the subject of additional discovery into their provenance.

Additional discovery was another aspect of the third party litigation funding debate.  Proponents argued, with some force, that disclosure of agreements would not be the end of matters.  They raised potential use of discovery into litigation funding as a means of opening yet “another front” in MDL litigation and attempting to disrupt the opposing side’s ability to finance itself.  We think that concern could be valid, but is easily addressed.  Disclosure of insurance hasn’t (except in Louisiana) led to insurance companies being sued directly by opponents of their insureds.  The work product issue raised above provides a useful analogy with, anything beyond the contract subject to a similar “good cause shown” and “otherwise unavailable” standard.  There is no inherent reason that such funding should be the source of additional discovery, but requiring prior court approval serves as another check.

Finally, just as plaintiffs want a look at their opponent’s insurance to know how much defendants have available for settlement, or whether the other side has sufficiently deep pockets, defendants should be able to make similar judgments based on plaintiffs’ third-party litigation funding.  A plaintiff who has to satisfy a funder is unlikely to take in settlement an amount that the defendant believes is reasonable if that means zero dollars in the plaintiff’s pocket.  In this respect, discovery of litigation funding is justifiable for the same reason as third-party litigation liens.  Very few plaintiffs would argue that insurance, health care, and other liens can be kept secret from the other side.  Anyone who has a piece of the potential recovery is, in practice a real party in interest who should be at the table and whose identity should be known to all.  All sides should know who is the ventriloquist and who is the dummy.

*          *         *         *

Several other topics were also discussed at the Duke conference, but they overwhelmingly involved the plaintiff side − composition of a plaintiff-side steering committee, judicial efforts to increase diversity on such steering committees, and common fund assessments.  But this post is already quite long, and these other topics are of less interest to our defense-oriented audience.

While the entire blogging team (RS, at least) was traveling home by planes, trains and automobiles from the DRI’s annual Drug and Medical Device conference, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals – yes, the same court that rejected the learned intermediary rule little more than a decade ago – issued its blockbuster opinion today refusing to adopt innovator liability in McNair v. Johnson & Johnson, ___ S.E.2d ___, No. 17-0519, slip op. (W. Va. May 11, 2018).  Major congratulations to the winning team from Patterson Belknap, who not only emerged victorious, but sent McNair to us within minutes of its release – and were nice enough to let us know that they cited our Innovator Liability Scorecard in their briefing.  They, and their steadfast clients, just put a major finger in the dike to the benefit of us all.

As we’ve mentioned before, innovator liability in McNair found its way to West Virginia’s highest court via a certified question from a Fourth Circuit panel looking for a way around Foster v. American Home Products Corp., 29 F.3d 165 (4th Cir. 1994).  We infer that motive because the opinion certifying the question gave the false impression that no prior West Virginia law existed on this question.  McNair v. Johnson & Johnson, 694 F. Appx. 115, 120-21 (4th Cir. 2017).  It didn’t work. See McNair, slip op. at 7, 14-17 (citing and relying upon In re Darvocet, Darvon, & Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d 917, 944 (6th Cir. 2014) (applying West Virginia law), and Meade v. Parsley, 2009 WL 3806716 (S.D.W. Va. Nov. 13, 2009)).

McNair (with a couple of justices dissenting – no other opinions yet), reaffirmed the traditional limits – indeed the entire rationale − of product liability as making sure that manufacturers (and not others) are responsible for defects (and negligence) in products from which they profited.  Innovator liability ““would sever the connection between risk and reward” . . . that forms the basis of products liability law.”  Slip op. at 24 (quoting defendants’ brief).

[S]trict liability has only been applied to a manufacturer, seller, or distributor of the product in question.  In other words, a plaintiff cannot recover damages in a strict liability action against the defendant, in the absence of showing that the defendant either manufactured or sold the product that allegedly injured the plaintiff.

Id. at 10 (citation, footnote, and quotation marks omitted).  There’s very good reason for this limitation:

[T]his Court, as well as other courts, adopted products liability to place responsibility for the harm caused by a product on the party who profits from its manufacture and sale.  Because the brand manufacturer did not place the generic product on the market, it cannot spread the cost of compensating generic consumers by including the cost of insurance or judgments as part of the product’s price tag.

Id. at 24 (citations and quotation marks omitted).  Particularly in the case of prescription drugs,

If brand manufacturers become liable for injuries allegedly caused by generic drugs, significant litigation costs would be added to the price of new drugs to the disadvantage of consumers.  Further, the increase in litigation against brand manufacturers could stifle the development of new drugs, which would have negative health consequences for society.

Id. at 25 (citation omitted).  This logic applied to all theories by which a product manufacturer could be held liable.  Negligent misrepresentation likewise failed, for the reasons stated in Darvocet, supra, and Huck v. Wyeth, Inc., 850 N.W.2d 353 (Iowa 2014).  McNair, slip op. at 15-18.  As to general negligence, “all federal circuit courts that have considered the question have held, under the laws of different states, that a brand manufacturer does not owe a duty to a consumer who uses a generic drug.”  Id. at 18-19 (string citation omitted; see our scorecard for these cases).  “Any recognition of an outlier theory of liability permitting a generic drug consumer to bring an action against the brand manufacturer for an injury allegedly arising from the use of the generic drug would be plainly at odds with this public policy.”  Id. at 24.

McNair, further rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to distinguish between a defective product and a defective label:

[W]here necessary safety information is missing from a label, that makes the drug defective, not the label. . . .  [I]n Cardinal v. Elsevier Inc., No. MICV201104442, 2014 WL 10937406, at *3 (Mass. Super. Aug. 11, 2014), the court explained that “the label . . . is not the product, but a way in which a plaintiff can claim that the product is defective.” (citations omitted).  We agree with this reasoning, which is consistent with our own products liability law.  Here, the allegedly injury-causing product is the generic drug ingested by the consumer, not the warning label.

Slip op. at 13-14 (other citations and quotation marks omitted) (note: Bexis tracked down the Cardinal decision and sent it to Westlaw).

Ironically, the court’s prior learned intermediary-related outlier also figured into McNair’s most excellent result.  As we mentioned at the time, the West Virginia legislature reinstated the learned intermediary rule by statute. See W. Va. Code §55-7-30.  That statute just happened to be phrased in terms of a drug’s “manufacturer or seller”:

(a) A manufacturer or seller of a prescription drug or medical device may not be held liable in a product liability action for a claim based upon inadequate warning or instruction unless . . . [t]he manufacturer or seller . . . acted unreasonably in failing to provide reasonable instructions or warnings . . . to prescribing or other health care providers. . . .

Id. §55-7-30(a)(1) (quoted at McNair, slip op. at 23).  “[T]his statute incorporates this Court’s long-standing restriction of products liability to the manufacturer and seller of the allegedly injury-causing product.” Id. at 24.  Once again, the past excesses of West Virginia plaintiffs have come back to haunt them.

Nor was the McNair court influenced by plaintiffs’ argument that the common law should be distorted in order to allow plaintiffs to evade federal preemption as recognized in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011).  Preemption is no reason to jettison traditional product liability principles:

Just as the Supreme Court refused to distort the Supremacy Clause in Mensing to prevent the undesirable result of providing immunity to generic manufacturers in failure to warn cases, we decline to distort our products liability law to hold a brand manufacturer liable for injuries allegedly caused by a generic drug that the brand manufacturer neither manufactured nor sold.  Like the Supreme Court, we find that the proper remedy for consumers harmed by generic drugs rests with Congress or the FDA.

McNair, slip op. at 27.  “[A] brand manufacturer does not choose for its warning label to accompany the drugs marketed by its competitors.  Instead, federal law mandates such a result. Id. at 25.

Thus, the Supreme Court of Appeals’ syllabus (the binding precedent under West Virginia practice) reads:

There is no cause of action in West Virginia for failure to warn and negligent misrepresentation against a brand-name drug manufacturer when the drug ingested was produced by a generic drug manufacturer.

Slip op. at syllabus, point 4.

What a way to come home from DRI Drug and Medical Device.

Once again we find ourselves in the position of creating new defenses to a novel, plaintiff-side cause of action.  This time, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about innovator liability – the theory that would hold branded manufacturers liable for injuries allegedly caused by the ingestion of (preemption-immune) generic drugs on some kind of attenuated inadequate warning theory – since even before the California Supreme Court’s T.H. v. Novartis, Inc., 407 P.3d 18 (Cal. 2017), decision late last year.  If your company or your clients are concerned about being a target of such theories, here are some ideas we’ve come up with that might help.

Direct Preemption

In T.H., the “major, and ultimately most important, consideration under California law is the foreseeability of physical harm.”  407 P.3d at 29 (citations and quotation marks omitted).  What did T.H. have to say about “foreseeability” in deciding to create a new negligence duty on non-manufacturing branded manufacturers?  The manner in which T.H. construed “foreseeability” was much different than in the normal negligence case:

[A branded drug manufacturer] could reasonably have foreseen that deficiencies in its [product’s] label could mislead physicians about the safety of [the drug’s] generic bioequivalent, which was legally required to bear an identical label.

A brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturer has a duty under federal law to draft, update, and maintain the warning label so that it provides adequate warning of the drug’s potentially dangerous effects. . . .  [T]his category of manufacturers may use the “changes being effected” . . . regulation to “add or strengthen a contraindication, warning, precaution, or adverse reaction” immediately upon filing a supplemental application, without waiting for FDA approval.

The duty for a manufacturer of generic drugs, on the other hand, is to ensure that its warning label is identical to the label of the brand-name drug. . . .

What a brand-name manufacturer thus knows to a legal certainty is that any deficiencies in the label for its drug will be perpetuated in the label for its generic bioequivalent.

Id. (numerous regulatory citations omitted) (emphasis added).

T.H. thus grounded its duty (to be distinguished from breach) analysis, not on the likelihood that the defendant would have violated some common-law obligation, which is the usual way foreseeability is analyzed – but on the likelihood that the defendant would be compliant with its federal obligations under the FDCA.  Indeed, T.H. suggests that, but for this federal overlay, it would not have recognized a new duty at all.  Id. at 31 n.2 (were there “parity between NDA [branded] holders and ANDA [generic] holders with respect to submission of . . . safety-related labeling changes based on newly acquired information,” that could “justify reweighing of the [duty] factors and some reconsideration of the brand-name manufacturer’s duty in this category of cases”).

There is a second element to T.H.’s foreseeability analysis, and that also involves compliance (as opposed to violation) with legal obligations:

A brand-name manufacturer will also be aware that although the warnings communicated in its drug label are designed for physicians . . . it is often the pharmacist who actually decides whether the patient receives the brand-name drug or its generic bioequivalent.  Moreover, many insurance companies require the substitution of a generic drug for the brand-name drug as a matter of course. . . .  Accordingly, it is entirely foreseeable that the warnings included (or not included) on the brand-name drug label would influence the dispensing of the generic drug, either because the generic is substituted by the pharmacist or the insurance company after the physician has prescribed the brand-name drug, or because the warning label on the generic drug is legally required to be identical to the label on the brand-name drug.

Id. at 29-30.

The same unusual reliance on compliance with – rather than violation of – federal and other legal requirements governing the marketing of prescription drugs occurred in Rafferty v. Merck & Co., 92 N.E.3d 1205 (Mass. 2018):

[I]n the vast majority of such cases, the duty to warn would be limited to the manufacturer of the product − even if the plaintiff were to bring a general negligence claim − because the risk of harm arising from an inadequate warning would be foreseeable to a manufacturer only with respect to users of its own product, not the users of another product. . . .  Moreover, apart from any duty arising from the risk of foreseeable injury, only in rare cases could a plaintiff contend that his or her injury was caused by the inadequate warning given for another product.

But this case presents an exception to the usual pattern. Because the Hatch–Waxman amendments to the act require that the warning label of a generic drug be identical to the warning label of its brand-name counterpart . . . duty to warn claims involving generic drugs are potentially viable as general negligence claims, although not as products liability claims.  With generic drugs, it is not merely foreseeable but certain that the warning label provided by the brand-name manufacturer will be identical to the warning label provided by the generic manufacturer, and moreover that it will be relied on, not only by users of its own product, but also by users of the generic product.

92 N.E.3d at 1214-15 (once again omitting a passel of regulatory citations) (emphasis original).  And again the branded defendant’s compliance with the FDCA was the basis for this unique extension of duty to a non-manufacturer:

Federal labeling requirements for generic drugs present precisely the kind of “special circumstance” where a consumer would rely on the warnings created by someone other than the manufacturer of the product causing the injury. . . .  Where a brand-name drug manufacturer provides an inadequate warning for its own product, it knows or should know that it puts at risk not only the users of its own product, but also the users of the generic product.  Consequently, this is the rare (perhaps the only) type of case involving a manufactured product where the requirements of general negligence may be satisfied even where the requirements of products liability are not.

Id. at 1215 (emphasis added).

Plainly, innovator liability amounts to the imposition of a singular and burdensome form of non-manufacturing negligence liability predicated on the branded defendant’s compliance with its obligations under the FDCA – specifically the Hatch-Waxman requirement that it allow generic manufacturers to copy its labeling word-for-word.

Basing liability expressly on a branded manufacturer’s compliance with federal law should give rise to impossibility preemption.  This observation goes back to the oldest FDCA preemption case on the books, McDermott v. Wisconsin, 228 U.S. 115 (1913), where a state’s attempt to prohibit a product because its label complied with the FDCA, rather than with state law, was held preempted.  Even in 1913, it was “well settled that the state may not, under the guise of exercising its police power or otherwise, . . . enact legislation in conflict with the statutes of Congress passed for the regulation of the subject, and if it does, to the extent that the state law interferes with or frustrates the operation of the acts of Congress, its provisions must yield to the superior Federal power given to Congress by the Constitution.” Id. at 131-32 (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

The modern way of expressing the proposition recognized in McDermott is that “state and federal law conflict where it is ‘impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements.’” PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604, 618 (2011) (quoting Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 287 (1995)).  “Even in the absence of an express pre-emption provision, the Court has found state law to be impliedly pre-empted where it is ‘impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements.’” Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 570 U.S. 472 (2013) (quoting English v. General Electric Co., 496 U.S. 72, 79 (1990)).

That’s, frankly, pretty blatant here, since (as just demonstrated) compliance with federal law is the sine qua non of extending a warning-related duty to the non-manufacturing, branded-drug defendant in both T.H. and Rafferty.  Since innovator liability is explicitly based on the fact of the branded manufacturer’s compliance with what Hatch-Waxman requires, it cannot avoid being preempted, because the entire theory flows from the premise that meeting FDCA requirements about allowing generic use of its labels equals foreseeability, indeed “certainty.”

There are undoubtedly numerous other precedents expressing the same concept, but even the most anti-preemption courts recognize that tort law cannot penalize compliance with federal law.  Take the Seventh Circuit in Bausch v. Stryker Corp., 630 F.3d 546 (7th Cir. 2010), one of the most virulently anti-preemption decisions we can think of.  Bausch was adamant that preemption (express, in that case) precludes “claims that the [product] at issue ‘violated state tort law notwithstanding compliance with the relevant federal requirements.”  Id. at 552 (quoting Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312, 330 (2008)) (emphasis original in Bausch).  Innovator liability, which equates “foreseeability” with the branded defendant’s “compliance with the relevant federal requirements,” is worse than even the claims Bausch recognized would be preempted, because state-law innovator liability exists because of, not merely “notwithstanding,” a defendant’s FDCA compliance.

Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

Next, we invite you to consider personal jurisdiction in innovator liability cases in light of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017) (“BMS”).  In a prescription drug product liability case, BMS held that there was no specific jurisdiction over a plaintiff’s claim just because the same defendant allegedly sold the same drug to other, in-state residents, causing similar injuries:

The mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested [the drug] in California − and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the nonresidents − does not allow the State to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.  As we have explained, “a defendant’s relationship with a . . . third party, standing alone, is an insufficient basis for jurisdiction.”

BMS, 137 S. Ct. at 1781 (quoting Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, 1123 (2014)).  Rather, “case-linked” personal jurisdiction requires case-linked conduct by the defendant within the jurisdiction.  “Nor is it sufficient − or even relevant − that [the defendant] conducted [activities] in California on matters unrelated to [its product].  What is needed − and what is missing here − is a connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue.”  Id.  It was dispositive in BMS that “all the conduct giving rise to the [plaintiffs’] claims occurred elsewhere.”  Id.

Now, consider the conduct alleged to give rise to innovator liability.  It is not the sale of any product, let alone sale of the product that allegedly injured the plaintiff in the jurisdiction where the plaintiff brings suit.  Rather:

Plaintiffs further allege that [the branded defendant] knew or should have known that [the drug] was of questionable efficacy . . ., that [the drug] carried serious risks of side effects for [persons such as plaintiff], and that federal law required [defendant] to report this information to the FDA and to update the warning label − something [it] could have done unilaterally.  Instead, [the branded defendant] falsely represented that [the drug] was safe and effective and would not cause serious side effects in newborns, and it intended for pregnant mothers and their physicians to rely on these representations.

T.H., 407 P.3d at 26.  See Rafferty, 92 N.E.3d at 1212 (similar allegations that the branded defendant “not changed its label” to include a relevant risk that it was warning about overseas).

Under BMS, where does the “case-linked” conduct of branded defendant take place in an innovator liability case?  That conduct does not include sale of a product.  The defendant did not sell the allegedly injurious product, but only a different bioequivalent product with the same risks.  Sale of a different product to different people, even if those other people are in-state residents, can’t support specific, “case linked” personal jurisdiction.  That’s what BMS was all about, only BMS involved the same product, not a bioequivalent generic.  Further, since a branded defendant did not sell the injurious product, there’s not even an arguable basis for “stream of commerce” jurisdiction in innovator liability cases.

Rather, the alleged failure to warn, the alleged knowledge of undisclosed risks, and the alleged failure to bring this information to the attention of the FDA (or to consumers) occurred, if at all, at the principal place of business of the defendant.  Unless the branded defendant in an innovator liability case has the misfortune of being “at home” in the state permitting that theory, there is no basis for “case linked” personal jurisdiction under BMS, because no case-linked conduct occurred that also constituted the necessary “purposeful availment” of the jurisdiction where the plaintiff was allegedly injured by ingesting a generic drug resided.  Further, Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117 (2014), teaches that there can be no general personal jurisdiction under the same facts, unless the branded defendant was either incorporated or had its principal place of business in the state where suit is brought.

No case-linked jurisdiction due to lack of case-related in-state conduct, combined with the defendant not being “at home” for general jurisdiction purposes, means that there can’t be personal jurisdiction over a branded defendant sued for no reason other than the plaintiff being injured in a state recognizing innovator liability.  Branded defendants should raise personal jurisdiction as a defense – remember, personal jurisdiction is waivable.

This jurisdictional insight is the reason we invited the guest post a few weeks ago by Blank Rome’s Terry Henry.  He was the first person (other than Bexis) whom we saw articulate this argument – and he got around to writing about it before we did.

The second act of the personal jurisdiction defense to innovator liability occurs when the plaintiff is forced to bring suit in the state where the defendant is “at home.”  That sets up choice of law as another hoop for plaintiff to jump through. Historically, almost all states have limited product liability (even under fraud-based theories) to the manufacturer of the product that allegedly produced the plaintiff’s harm.  Fewer, but still quite a few, states have product liability statutes that expressly impose this requirement (sometimes referred to as “product identification”).  Think back to how plaintiffs, during the brief period that West Virginia rejected the learned intermediary rule, attempted (with some success) to claim that West Virginia “public policy” overrode any other choice of law principles and precluded reliance on the differing law of a plaintiff’s home state?   We described that situation here.  Well, that same “public policy” exception to choice of law analysis, see Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws §187(2)(b) (1971) (discussing this aspect of the law), can be utilized by branded defendants to argue that allowing innovator liability would offend the law of the defendant’s “home” state, thus rendering the theory entirely unavailable.  If there’s a statutory basis for this home state public policy, then so much the better, but even states without such statutes (Pennsylvania is one of those) probably have long-established precedent saying something like this:

The underlying purpose of [strict liability] is to ensure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves. . . .  [T]he burden of injuries caused by defects in such products should fall upon those who make and market the products and the consuming public is entitled to the maximum of protection.

Miller v. Preitz, 221 A.2d 320, 334-35 (Pa. 1966).  That’s a pretty solid iteration of state “public policy” that product liability is intended to be borne by manufacturers of injurious products.

So consider raising personal jurisdiction as an issue against plaintiffs making innovator liability claims. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Setting up a Prophylactic Preemption Defense

The potential scope of innovator liability is so massive that it may require branded companies to reconsider how they carry out certain aspects of their business.  We’re sure most such companies review their warnings in strict compliance with FDA requirements and guidance concerning analysis of signals from medical literature and adverse events, with full recognition that, first, overwarning is a bad thing and, second, voluntarily reported adverse events, by themselves aren’t proof of causation.

If innovator liability catches on, then potential defendants might want to consider changing those time-honored practices at two critical moments:  (1) when entry of generic products into the market is imminent, and (2) when a decision is made to sell the new drug application of a drug having generic counterparts.  When #1 happens, the commercial considerations that reinforce strict compliance with FDA warning standards weaken, because a significant loss of market share is inevitable.  When #2 happens, the potential defendant is about to lose any control over drug labeling, since only NDA holders can file NDA supplements.  Number 2 would, of course, be in addition to any indemnification or similar provisions in the contract selling the NDA.

In those situations, companies that fear being targeted by innovator liability might want to pull every possible “signal” or statistical anomaly they can find in their data and submit these purported “risks” to the FDA for its independent evaluation − even if, objectively, the company does not believe that the data otherwise justify a “changes being effected” labeling change of the sort mentioned in T.H. or Rafferty.  Let the FDA be the one to say “no.”  If the FDA doesn’t like this, let the agency take regulatory steps to prohibit innovator liability.

Why?

The FDA saying “no” – that the scientific data at the time the supplement was submitted was insufficient to justify a warning change – sets up a “clear evidence” preemption defense.  In Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 855 F.3d 1091 (10th Cir. 2017), which we discussed here, the court held:

We conclude that the rejection of a [submission to the FDA] may constitute clear evidence that the FDA would have rejected a manufacturer-initiated change to a drug label. Our case provides a perfect example. . . .  Under the standard that would have applied to a change proposed by [the manufacturer], the FDA concluded that warnings were unjustified for risks [at issue in this case].  That conclusion controls here, and the FDA’s denial constitutes clear evidence that the FDA would not have approved the [plaintiffs’] desired warning.

Id. at 1105.  Indeed, the big preemption fight in Cerveny wasn’t even about whether an FDA rejection was preemptive “clear evidence,” but rather focused on whether an FDA citizen’s petition filed by a non-NDA holder should be given the same effect as an FDA rejection of a manufacturer’s NDA supplement.  The scientific standards for both are the same, and Cerveny said that’s enough for preemption.  Id.

Some states disagree, and only give preemptive effect to FDA rejection of manufacturer-filed submissions.  Notably, Massachusetts is in this category.  See Reckis v. Johnson & Johnson, 28 N.E.3d 445, 459-60 (Mass. 2015) (holding that FDA decision rejecting additional warning language proposed by defendant would preempt claims, but not FDA rejection of a third-party citizen’s petition).  California trial court decisions provide a solid basis for a Cerveny-like preemption argument.  See In re Incretin-Based Therapies Products Liability Litigation, 142 F. Supp.3d 1108, 1122-23 (S.D. Cal. 2015), rev’d on other grounds, ___ F. Appx. ___, 2017 WL 6030735 (9th Cir. Dec. 6, 2017) (as to Buckman preemption); Risperdal & Invega Product Liability Cases, 2017 WL 4100102, at *10-11 (Cal. Super. March 16, 2017), reconsideration denied, 2017 WL 4479317 (Cal. Super. July 24, 2017); In re Byetta Cases, 2015 WL 7184655, at *13-14 (Cal. Super. Nov. 13, 2015).  Since the strategy we’re recommending that branded manufacturers consider involves manufacturer-submitted supplements, the distinction drawn in Reckis would be irrelevant.

Thus, if a branded company is staring down the barrel of extensive innovator liability for injuries caused by products it did not make, and thus received no profit from manufacturing, it may be time to reconsider, at certain critical periods, whether to err on side of extreme caution concerning possible emergent risks, and let the FDA decide.  If the FDA says no warning is justified at those times, then the company can assert a “clear evidence” preemption defense against future plaintiffs (innovator liability or otherwise) claiming the opposite.

*          *          *          *

To our in-house readers:

Do these arguments interest you?  Well, Bexis has put together a detailed presentation on these – and several other − ideas for combatting/ameliorating innovator liability.  The dog and pony show takes about an hour, and if you’d like Bexis to pay you a visit and discuss innovator liability with your in-house legal team (invite your outside counsel, too, if you’d like) send an email and we’ll try to set something up.

Sure, it was enjoyable to read In re DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc., Pinnacle Hip Implant Product Liability Litigation, ___ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 1954759 (5th Cir. April 25, 2018) (“Pinnacle Hip”), to see plaintiffs’ counsel hoisted on their own petard of improper and prejudicial evidence and arguments.  But there’s more to Pinnacle Hip than “Lanier-on-a-spit,” as it has been described in these parts.  Indeed, blogging plaintiffs’ attorney Max Kennerly, dropped a comment to our first Pinnacle Hip post (which we published – we scrub only spam, not opposing views) asserting that “the rest of the opinion was a huge win for plaintiffs.”

We largely disagree with Max’s comment, and this post explains why.

Initially, we note that the defendant in Pinnacle Hip was swimming decidedly upstream in all of its legal arguments, since it was opposing a jury verdict entered against it and seeking entry of judgment as a matter of law in its favor.  2018 WL 1954759, at *2.  That means all the trial evidence is construed in the plaintiffs’ favor.  Id. at *3 (“JMOL is warranted only if a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the nonmovant.”) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

Design Claims

The first claim addressed in Pinnacle Hip was design defect.  See 2018 WL 1954759, at *3-9.  The defendant raised several arguments, all unsuccessfully.  First, the defendant argued that plaintiff had failed to satisfy the Texas alternative design requirement because that alternative that the plaintiffs offered – a “metal on plastic” (“MoP”) hip implant – was really a “different product” from the defendants’ metal-on-metal design (“MoM”), and thus cannot serve as a design alternative.  This is an argument we have featured several times on the blog.  In Pinnacle Hip, the conclusion was that “based on the record, that MoP is a viable alternative design to MoM.”  Id. at *4.

While we would have liked to win this, on the facts, this distinction between alternative product and design is more difficult for the defense than in the cases we’ve discussed in our prior posts, which usually involve not using the product at all, or using some other product that is much less suited for the use in question.  Our classic example of alternative cause abuse is Theriot v. Danek Medical, Inc., 168 F.3d 253 (5th Cir. 1999), a Bone Screw case in which the supposed “alternative” was a different type of surgery not using the product at all.  That’s distinct from redesigning one part of a device system to use a different material, as indeed, Pinnacle Hip pointed out.  2018 WL 1954759, at *9.  Pinnacle Hip reaffirmed that similar-use products that “fail[] to perform the discrete kinds of functions for which the alleged defective was designed” or with a “wide disparity in price” cannot be considered alternative designs.  Id. at *4, *7.  However , the risk/utility defect test “contemplates that a proposed alternative design might reduce a product’s utility . . . without rendering the alternative an entirely different product.”  Id. at *5.  That means some variation has to exist without “moot[ing] the entire defect test.”  Id.

Construing the record to favor plaintiffs, Pinnacle Hip resulted in another point on the uncertain, “practically impossible to settle in the abstract,” id., at *4, line between different design and different product.  While we’d like to have won, Pinnacle Hip does not move the line itself in any lasting fashion prejudicial to the defense.  The ultimate holding was that a “cross-linked” MoP is not sufficiently different from the defendant’s MoP design to be considered a different product.  2018 WL 1954759, at *6 & n.13.  The underlying principle that the distinction between product and design seeks to protect is preventing automatic liability against whole classes of products – cigarettes, motorcycles, birth control pills, or pedicle screw fixation devices – for simply being what they are and having certain inherent risks.  That principle remains intact after Pinnacle Hip.

The defendants also lost a preemption argument – that design defect claims “’stand[] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives’ reflected in the MoM-related regulations of the FDA.”  2018 WL 1954759, at *7.  According to the defendants, because the plaintiffs were seeking “categorical” liability, that all MoMs should be “banned outright,” there should be preemption. Id. at *8.  But that’s not what the Fifth Circuit found was what happened:

[I]t is not the case that plaintiffs’ theory reached all possible MoMs.  All would agree that, despite the sweeping language with which plaintiffs presented their case, their claims were impliedly limited to presently available technologies and the adverse health effects they allegedly engender.

Id.  But the record showed that “[t]he FDA effectively withdrew all MoMs from the market . . . and left open a single door in the form of PMA.”  Id.  On this set of facts, it could not be said that banning something that the FDA had already essentially removed from the market, save for an alternative that has not yet produced an FDA-approved product, was an interference with “the FDA’s regulatory objectives.”  Id.

While losing a preemption argument is not something we would recommend, this particular type of preemption argument has never been successful that we are aware of, so it’s no great loss.  We’ve advocated at some length that the Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470 (1996), decision be overturned.  But that argument is predicated on changes to 510(k) clearance created by Congress in 1990.  In Pinnacle Hip, “MoMs were sold before 1976 and have traditionally been treated as pre-amendment class III devices.”  2018 WL 1954759, at *8.  So Pinnacle Hip doesn’t affect even the distinctions that we draw from Lohr.  The preemption argument rejected in Pinnacle Hip would require the complete reversal of Lohr, even on Lohr’s facts, to succeed.

By far the better preemption argument, based on current law, with respect to 510(k) design defect claims, is that they amount to “major changes” that require prior FDA review, and probably an entirely new supplemental submission, before they could be implemented.  That should put design defect claims at odds with the “independence principle” in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011), and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 570 U.S. 472 (2013), resulting in preemption of all design claims that could make a difference in a product liability action.  That argument, which does not depend on Lohr either way, was not addressed at all in Pinnacle Hip.

Finally, the defendants in Pinnacle Hip also lost on their Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, comment k (1965), argument, which was that Texas law holds all prescription medical products, including medical devices, to be “unavoidably unsafe” within the meaning of comment k, so that those “unavoidable” risks can only be warned about and not treated as design defects.  Pinnacle Hip was unwilling to expand Texas’ application of comment k from prescription drugs to include prescription medical devices.  2018 WL 1954759, at *9.  That places Pinnacle Hip in a distinct minority position, since literally hundreds of cases, and the Third Restatement, apply limits on design defect claims equally to all types of prescription medical products.  Bexis’ book collects these cases.  Drug & Medical Device Product Liability Deskbook §2.02[2] at pp. 2.02-13 to -16 n.14 (for the proposition that “almost all courts have extended the unavoidably unsafe product exception to medical devices”).  However, as the Fifth Circuit correctly pointed out, not many of those opinions are under Texas law.

The further discussion of case-by-case versus across-the-board comment k application in Texas, 2018 WL 1954759, at *9, is more troubling, as the trend in Texas courts (in drug and vaccine prescription product cases) has favored the “blanket” approach.  Pinnacle Hip complained, in a footnote, that “Texas caselaw offers almost no guidance on how to go about that case-by-case inquiry.”  Id. at *9 n.22.  There is good reason for that lack of precedent – because Texas law has not employed tests that require such inquiry.  See Reyes v. Wyeth Laboratories, 498 F.2d 1264, 1273 (5th Cir. 1974) (applying comment k without case-by-case analysis to a vaccine; holding that the only viable claim was inadequate warning); Gonzalez v. Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 930 F. Supp.2d 808, 817-18 (S.D. Tex. 2013) (applying comment k to prescription drug without case-by-case analysis); Woodhouse v. Sanofi-Aventis United States LLC, 2011 WL 3666595, at *3-4 (W.D. Tex. June 23, 2011) (holding, without further analysis, that “comment k applies to products such as [defendant’s prescription drug]”); Holland v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 2007 WL 4042757, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 15, 2007) (“Prescription drugs are not susceptible to a design defect claim where, as here, the drug is ‘accompanied by proper directions and warning.’”) (quoting comment k); Carter v. Tap Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2004 WL 2550593, at *2 (W.D. Tex. Nov. 2, 2004) (“Under Texas law, all FDA-approved prescription drugs are unavoidably unsafe as a matter of law”); Hackett v. G.D. Searle & Co., 246 F. Supp.2d 591, 595 (W.D. Tex. 2002) (“under Texas law and comment k of the Restatement, Defendants can only be held strictly liable if the drug was not properly prepared or marketed or accompanied by proper warnings”).  Contra: Adams v. Boston Scientific Corp., 177 F. Supp.3d 959, 965 (S.D.W. Va. 2016) (refusing to apply comment k across-the-board in medical device case) (applying Texas law).  The comment k portion of Pinnacle Hip is where we think that Max is on the firmest ground.  The decision made Texas law worse.  This issue will ultimately be won in Texas appellate courts or perhaps before the Texas legislature, where it would be quite simple to extend the warning related presumption of §82.007 to all medical devices approved or cleared by the FDA.

Warning Claims

As to warning claims (which Texas law calls “marketing defects”), the defendants lost on adequacy as a matter of law.  Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *10.  Unfortunately, defendants usually lose on this ground, so it’s big news – and trumpeted on this blog – when a defendant wins a judicial holding that its warning is adequate as a matter of law.  No surprise there.  In Pinnacle Hip, that discussion ended:

Not until after the FDA issued its proposed rule in 2013 did defendants specifically warn about the metallosis, pseudotumors, and tissue necrosis − the sorts of conditions that plaintiffs maintained caused their revision surgery.

Id. at 11.  As defense counsel, we interpret the Fifth Circuit’s observation as an invitation to seek an adequacy as a matter of law ruling as to post-2013 claims (if there are any) in the litigation.

In the causation discussion pertaining to the warning claims, Pinnacle Hip of course followed the learned intermediary rule.  It discussed the role of “objective” evidence of causation:

At the threshold, the parties debate the relevance, under Texas law, of “objective evidence” − that is, evidence “that a different warning would have affected the decision of a reasonable doctor.” . . . Here, plaintiffs proffered objective evidence in [expert] testimony that, if the full risks of MoM were known to physicians, “they would run to [a different product].”

2018 WL 1954759, at *11 (citations omitted).  As we’ve discussed before, “objective” expert testimony about what “reasonable physicians” would have done is usually disallowed in learned intermediary cases.

On this point, however, Fifth Circuit law, has not been as favorable as other courts.  In Thomas v. Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., 949 F.2d 806, 812 (5th Cir. 1992), the court actually allowed expert testimony on what a “reasonable” physician might have done – but that case was under Mississippi law.  See Ackermann v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 526 F.3d 203, 212 (5th Cir. 2008) (suggesting that Thomas would not apply to Texas law).  We’ve been aware of the brief Texas Supreme Court passing reference to “objective” evidence in Centocor, Inc. v. Hamilton, 372 S.W.3d 140, 171 (Tex. 2012) (plaintiffs “presented no objective evidence”), but felt no reason to let the other side know it was there.

Now it’s been discovered, however.  The Fifth Circuit allowed such evidence to be admissible, 2018 WL 1954759, at *12 (“objective evidence is at least relevant”), but did not find it decisive in situations where the plaintiff would otherwise have suffered dismissal.  Critically, Pinnacle Hip did not allow unsupported “expert” testimony about what an objectively “reasonable physician” would have done be enough to let plaintiffs survive when they didn’t have prescriber testimony – which would have been the equivalent of allowing a heeding presumption in Texas, something the Fifth Circuit rejected outright in Ackerman, 526 F.3d at 212-13.

Relevance, however, does not imply sufficiency.  In the [learned intermediary] context, causation entails two distinct factual predicates:  first, that the doctor would have read or encountered the adequate warning; and second that the adequate warning would have altered his treatment decision for, or risk-related disclosures to, the patient.  Centocor addressed only the latter, suggesting a jury might be allowed to presume a particular physician would respond “reasonably” to fuller disclosure.  But that presumption must yield to contrary subjective testimony by the treating physician, and Centocor fails to explain how objective evidence would apply to whether that doctor would have read or encountered the warning in the first instance.  When considered for the limited purpose intimated in Centocor, objective evidence would have little bearing on any of [these] plaintiffs’ claims.

Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *12 (footnotes omitted) (emphasis original).  Thus, where the plaintiffs had no testimony from their prescribing physicians, those claims continue to fail, and some “expert” claiming otherwise cannot change the result.  Id. (granting JMOL in no-prescriber testimony cases).  Likewise, any “objective” testimony “must yield to contrary subjective testimony by the treating physician.” Id.  So plaintiffs cannot create questions of fact with expert testimony where the prescriber has affirmatively testified that a different warning would not have changed what s/he did.

Only what the Fifth Circuit described as “mixed bag” prescriber testimony (the prescriber said different things in different parts of his testimony) cases got to the jury in Pinnacle Hip, id. at *13, and those have always been harder cases for the defense anyway.  At best, for plaintiffs, paying some expert to opine that a “reasonable” physician would have heeded a warning won’t save any plaintiff who lacked a plausible warning causation case in the first place.  At worst, Pinnacle Hip means more plaintiff-side noise at trial in cases already going to trial on warning causation.  All in all, the defense side is better off after Pinnacle Hip than where it had been in the Fifth Circuit with only the Thomas precedent.  We definitely don’t agree with Max here.

Personal Jurisdiction

In Pinnacle Hip, the manufacturer’s parent corporation was held potentially liable because of the amount of guidance and control permitted by an inference from the facts (based on a “clear error” standard).  2018 WL 1954759, at *15.  Those facts allowed the court to conclude that more than a “passive parent-subsidiary relationship” existed as to this product.  Id. at *16.  To us that’s “big whoop” for two reasons.  First, the “clear error” standard does not apply at the district court level where jurisdictional motions are initially decided.  Second, and more important going forward, the plaintiffs proceeded under a “stream of commerce” theory where the Fifth Circuit had previously “embraced [the] more expansive” (Brennan) side of the 4-4 split in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).  Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *15.  As we’ve discussed, that broad “stream of commerce” jurisdictional theory is probably toast after Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017).  Pinnacle Hip did not even cite BMS in its discussion of personal jurisdiction, so we guess that this argument wasn’t raised.  In light of the BMS precedent, the Pinnacle Hip jurisdictional holding should be treated as something of a “one-off” applicable to this MDL, but not to future litigation where BMS will stand front and center.

Miscellaneous Claims

Pinnacle Hip includes the Fifth Circuit’s full-throated reaffirmance of our favorite Erie principle:

[T]hat debate [about what a Texas court might do] is beside the point.  When sitting in diversity, a federal court exceeds the bounds of its legitimacy in fashioning novel causes of action not yet recognized by the state courts.  Here, despite ample warning, the district court exceeded its circumscribed institutional role and expanded Texas law beyond its presently existing boundary.

2018 WL 1954759, at *17 (footnote, citations, and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added).  The court therefore threw out the spurious invention of an “aiding and abetting” cause of action that had no reasonable predicate in Texas law.  Id.

The court did allow two arguably weird theories against the parent corporation – all product liability theories imposing liability against a non-manufacturing parent under a theory not also cognizable against the manufacturing subsidiary are likely to be weird − to survive.  One of those, so-called “nonmanufacturer seller” was tied to statutory exceptions to immunity for nonmanufacturers.  Id. at*18.  The court held, instead, that the parent was only held liable for old-fashioned design or warning liability, after the record (again, construed in favor of plaintiffs as verdict winners) established one of statutory exceptions from nonmanufacturer immunity.  Id. That’s a little peculiar to non-Texas lawyers, but since Texas has this statute, it must mean something.

The other oddball claim that survived is one of those “last refuge of a scoundrel” theories, negligent undertaking” (a/k/a “Good Samaritan”) liability.

Texas caselaw reveals no precise control threshold a parent must cross before undertaking a duty to its subsidiary’s customers.  Texas courts have made clear that mere possession of “the authority to compel” a subsidiary is not enough − the parent “must actually” exercise that authority in a manner relevant to the undertaking inquiry.

Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *19 (footnote omitted).  Based on the stringent standard for interpreting record evidence, the court let this one slide.  Id.  Not good, but not likely to arise very often.

But there’s more afoot than just these three theories. Two years ago, we awarded In re DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc., 2016 WL 6268090 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 5, 2016), our ranking as the number six worst decision of that year, chiefly because of the large number of unprecedented theories under Texas law that this opinion permitted:

(1) extending negligent misrepresentation beyond “business transactions” to product liability, unprecedented in Texas; (2) ignoring multiple US Supreme Court decisions that express and implied preemption operate independently (as discussed here) to dismiss implied preemption with nothing more than a cite to the Medtronic v. Lohr express preemption decision; (3) inventing some sort of state-law tort to second-guess the defendant following one FDA marketing approach (§510k clearance) over another (pre-market approval), unprecedented anywhere; (4) holding that the learned intermediary rule does not apply whenever a defendant “compensates” or “incentivizes” physicians to use its products, absent any Texas state or appellate authority; (5) imposing strict liability on an entity not in the product’s chain of sale, contrary to Texas statute (§82.001(2)); (6) creating a claim for “tortious interference” with the physician-patient relationship, again utterly unprecedented; (7) creating “vicarious” breach of fiduciary duty for engaging doctors to serve as expert witnesses in mass tort litigation also involving their patients, ditto; and (8) construing a consulting agreement with a physician as “commercial bribery” to avoid the Texas cap on punitive damages, jaw-droppingly unprecedented.

While only item (5) was at issue in Pinnacle Hip, the Fifth Circuit’s invocation of Erie conservatism bears ill for all of the other judicial flights of fancy that have been allowed during the course of the Pinnacle Hip litigation.

Constitutionality of Punitive Damages Cap

For completeness, plaintiffs also lost their constitutional challenge to the Texas statute capping punitive damages at twice compensatory damages.  “Plaintiffs’ cross-appeal is meritless, and we dispose of it by footnote.”  Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *1 n.4.  That footnote went further, and characterized those constitutional claims as “frivolous.”  Id. at *23 n.72.  No matter what the constitutional challenge, a punitive damages cap “need only survive rational-basis review,” which it did in Pinnacle Hip “by injecting predictability into exemplary damages awards and preempting potentially unconstitutional awards.”  Id. (citations omitted).

Conclusion

When all is said and done, we view Max’s characterization of Pinnacle Hip as a “huge win for plaintiffs” as mostly overblown hyperbole, perhaps worthy of inclusion in the closing arguments that the Fifth Circuit held warranted a new trial.  The Fifth Circuit did some damage to comment k, but all the rest of the legal holdings were trivial, fact-bound, not likely to be useful in future cases, or some combination of those.  The forceful reiteration of conservative principles of Erie predictions of state law leave us hopeful that the Pinnacle Hip MDL will see some Fifth Circuit-mandated clean up – or, if not, perhaps the appellate court’s not-so-veiled Parthian, parting shot may have to be fired in earnest:

[D]efendants, despite their serious critiques of the district judge’s actions in this case and related MDL proceedings, see In re DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc., 870 F.3d 345, 351 (5th Cir. 2017) (finding “grave error”), have not asked us to require these cases to be reassigned to a different judge under “this court’s supervisory power to reassign,” United States v. Stanford, 883 F.3d 500, 516 (5th Cir. 2018).  We express no view on the issue but note that reassignment is both “extraordinary” and “rarely invoked.”  Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Pinnacle Hip, 2018 WL 1954759, at *27, n.83.  Obviously, the Fifth Circuit in Pinnacle Hip was uncomfortable with the prospect of overruling the JPMDL’s assignment of this MDL, but this final footnote stands as a clear warning that, if further provoked (such as by continuing consolidated trials, or resort to other prejudicial evidence that the court noted but did not rule on), it will consider doing so.

With the nicer weather quickly approaching, we have been told that Chicago, IL is the place to be from June 13-15. Is something special happening in Millennium Park? Are the Cubs playing the Cardinals at Wrigley? Do the ChiSox still exist?

We found something even better.  American Conference Institute, in collaboration with HP, are presenting the first Legal, Regulatory, and Business conference on 3D Printing. This program is a “can’t miss” industry event that prepares those in the 3D printing community with the knowledge they need to tackle the rapidly rising regulatory, IP, and product liability challenges in this space.

In addition to being present to say some friendly hellos, Bexis will be taking part in one of the more anticipated sessions “3D Printing Potential Product Liability Issues” focusing on theories of liabilities companies in the industry will face, potential defenses that can be utilized, and ways in which companies can minimize their product liability risks.

Since we hope to see you at the conference, we wanted to share two pieces of helpful news:

  • First, the discounted rates for the program end Friday, May 11th making now the best time to register for the event, if you have yet to do so.
  • Second, as a thank you for Bexis’s participation in the program, ACI is offering a special registration discount for the conference for the blog’s readers. Make sure to use the code D10-767-BCK10 when you register. You will save 10% off published rates.

We look forward to seeing you in Chicago this June for an outstanding event!

Last September, we criticized a 2-1 decision out of the Ninth Circuit, In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litigation, 869 F.3d 737 (9th Cir. 2017), calling it a “poster child” for cy pres abuse in class actions.  Read the entire post for all the gory details, but briefly, the class action settlement in Google Referrer:

  • Let counsel have a whopping 38% of the settlement as fees.
  • Declared the entire settlement “non-distributable” because, even without opposition, neither the class members nor their damages could be determined.
  • Gave 100% of the settlement funds as cy pres to six uninjured charities, and 0% to the 129 million estimated supposedly injured class members.
  • All three of the law school cy pres recipients had ties to counsel in the case.
  • The cy pres recipients were to educate and publicize supposed internet privacy issues – in other words, to act as a breeding ground for further litigation of this sort.

We closed that post by recommending, “[w]e think this is a case that should go to the United States Supreme Court.”  We don’t say that often (only about DesianoNeurontinBartlett, Bristol Myers-Squibb, and Fosamax, that we can recall offhand) – six times in eleven years.

Well, we’re pleased to report that yesterday the United States Supreme Court accepted a certiorari petition in the case, rechristened as Frank v. Gaos, No. 17-961, 2018 WL 324121 (U.S. Apr. 30, 2018).  The SCOTUSBlog story is here.  The order granting certiorari is here.  The question presented is:

Whether, or in what circumstances, a cy pres award of class action proceeds that provides no direct relief to class members supports class certification and comports with the requirement that a settlement binding class members must be “fair, reasonable, and adequate.”

See Certiorari petition.  We are cautiously optimistic that the result in Frank will be the disavowal or severe limitation of cy pres distributions in class actions.

Not quite two years ago, the United States Supreme Court did something that we liked a lot – it abolished the so-called “presumption against preemption” in express preemption cases. It did that in a bankruptcy case, Puerto Rico v. Franklin-California Tax-Free Trust, 136 S. Ct. 1938 (2016) (“Franklin”), so it took a little while before we found out about it.  Once we did, we immediately let the word be known:

The plain text of the [preemption clause] begins and ends our analysis. Resolving [the question] for purposes of the pre-emption provision begins “with the language of the statute itself,” and that “is also where the inquiry should end,” for “the statute’s language is plain.”  And because the statute “contains an express pre-emption clause,” we do not invoke any presumption against pre-emption but instead “focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ pre-emptive intent.”

Id. at 1946 (emphasis added).

Now, when the Supreme Court makes a holding like that about preemption, that should be the end of the matter.  But as we’ve pointed out many times before, strange things tend to happen when preemption mixes with state-law product liability actions.  So, now that nearly two years have passed, how well has the Supreme Court’s abolition of the presumption against preemption in express preemption cases been respected by the lower courts?

Generally, the courts have followed the Supreme Court’s lead.  The Ninth Circuit, which sometimes has had to be reigned in by the Court, did not stray on this issue.  In Atay v. County of Maui, 842 F.3d 688, 699 (9th Cir. 2016), a preemption case involving genetically modified foods, the court placed the abolition of the presumption against preemption among its “federal preemption principles”:

Where the intent of a statutory provision that speaks expressly to the question of preemption is at issue, “we do not invoke any presumption against pre-emption but instead focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ pre-emptive intent.”

Id. at 699 (quoting Franklin).  With no adverse presumption, the state action in Atay – an attempt to ban the growing of anything genetically modified – was held preempted.  Id. at 702-03.

The Eighth Circuit in Watson v. Air Methods Corp., 870 F.3d 812, 817 (8th Cir. 2017), also followed Franklin:

In determining the meaning of an express pre-emption provision, we apply no presumption against pre-emption, and we “focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ pre-emptive intent.”

Id. at 817.  Finding the text of the relevant statute (involving airline deregulation) “highly elastic and so of limited help,” id. (citation and quotation marks omitted), Watson concluded that the plaintiff’s wrongful discharge claim was “too tenuous, remote, or peripheral to [be] expressly pre-empted.  Id. at 818.

In EagleMed LLC v. Cox, 868 F.3d 893, 903 (10th Cir. 2017), another airline deregulation case, the court found that air ambulance services were governed by the statute, and therefore state worker’s compensation claims against them were expressly preempted.  As for any presumption against preemption:

[W]hen a statute contains an express preemption clause, “we do not invoke any presumption against pre-emption but instead focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ pre-emptive intent.”  And when the statute’s language is plain, our inquiry into preemption both begins and ends with the language of the statute itself.

Id. at 903 (citing Franklin).  Because not “a single textual reason” was offered in opposition to preemption, the state claims failed.  “[P]olicy reasons cannot trump the plain language of the statute.”  Id. at 904.

More directly applicable to what we do, Conklin v. Medtronic, Inc., __ P.3d __, 2017 WL 4682107 (Ariz. App. Oct. 19, 2017), likewise recognized the demise of the presumption against preemption in a medical device product liability case.  “While federal laws are presumed not to preempt state laws, courts do not invoke that presumption when the federal statute contains an express preemption clause.”  Id. at *2.  In addition to Franklin, Conklin cited the four-justice dissent in Cuomo v. Clearing House Ass’n, L.L.C., 557 U.S. 519, 554 (2009) (“There should be no presumption against pre-emption because Congress has expressly pre-empted state law in this case.”), and the absence of any application of a presumption against preemption in Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312 (2008).  Every product liability claim except allegations of failure to make FDA-required reports was held preempted in Conklin.

Federal district courts have reached the same result.  In In re Smith & Nephew Birmingham Hip Resurfacing (BHR) Hip Implant Products Liability Litigation, the MDL judge recognized that “[r]ecently, the Supreme Court explained that a court should not apply a presumption against preemption when a ‘statute contains an express pre-emption clause,’” and did “not rely on a presumption against preemption”  not that it seemed to make much difference.  ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2018 WL 1471684, at *6 n.8 (D. Md. March 26, 2018).  Another unbound court, Olmstead v. Bayer Corp., 2017 WL 3498696, at *3 n.2 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2017), declared that, after Franklin, assertion of presumption against preemption in express preemption was “frivolous”:

Plaintiff’s argument that there is a strong presumption against preemption and that this presumption applies to the MDA’s express preemption clause is frivolous.

Id. at *3 n.2 (Franklin citation and quotation omitted).  Medical device-related claims were preempted.  Another New York court, Canale v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 258 F. Supp.3d 312 (S.D.N.Y. 2017), pointed out in another FDCA case, that the plaintiffs’ assertion of an “assumption” that common-law claims were not preempted was contrary to law:

Defendant correctly points out that where, as here, Congress has expressly manifested its intent to preempt state law, no presumption against preemption arises.  [Franklin citation omitted]   Rather, courts “focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress’ preemptive intent.”

Id. at 319 (quoting Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. v. Whiting, 563 U.S. 582, 594 (2011)).

The following bound courts – from the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, also rejected any presumption against preemption in reliance on Franklin.  In re Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep Ecodiesel Marketing, Sales Practices, & Products Liability Litigation, ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2018 WL 1335901, at *43 (N.D. Cal. March 15, 2018); Kaiser v. CSL Plasma Inc., 240 F. Supp.3d 1129, 1135 (W.D. Wash. 2017) (implied preemption case); In re Bard IVC Filters Products Liability Litigation, 2017 WL 5625547, at *4 (D. Ariz. Nov. 22, 2017); In re Syngenta Ag Mir 162 Corn Litigation, 2016 WL 4382772, at *3 (D. Kan. Aug. 17, 2016).

Finally, as an example proving our prior proposition that strange things happen when preemption and product liability mix, the Third Circuit in Shuker v. Smith & Nephew, PLC, 885 F.3d 760, 771 n.9 (3d Cir. 2018), so far uniquely, decided that it wasn’t going bound by the Supreme Court’s decision in Franklin.  Unless and until the Supreme Court rejects the presumption in a product liability case, the Third Circuit will continue to apply it – everybody else be damned:

We disagree with [defendant’s] assertion that “[a]ny presumption against express preemption no longer exists.”  [Defendant] relies on [Franklin] . . . but that case did not address preemption of claims invoking “historic . . . state regulation of matters of health and safety,” such as the products liability claims at issue here.  As [Franklin] does not “directly control[ ]” here, we “leav[e] to [the Supreme Court] the prerogative of overruling its own decisions,” Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 237 (1997), and continue to apply the presumption against preemption to claims, like those in this case, that invoke “the historic police powers of the States,”

Shuker, 885 F.3d at 771 n.9 (citations to Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470 (1996) omitted).

Just like that, without acknowledging either: (1) that the Supreme Court had already refused to apply a presumption against preemption to the same preemption clause in Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312 (2008); or (2) that its ruling was in conflict with every other court of appeals decision to rule on the question, Shuker chose to ignore an on-point Supreme Court decision that was less than two years old.

Moreover, the Shuker panel evidently went where even the Shuker plaintiffs were loath to go.  The plaintiffs in their two briefs (there were cross-appeals in Shuker) didn’t even attempt to argue a presumption against preemption. See Brief of Appellants, 2017 WL 413755 (3d Cir. filed Jan. 23, 2017); Reply Brief of Appellants to Brief of Appellee Smith & Nephew, Inc., 2017 WL 2211289 (3d Cir. filed May 8, 2017).  Heck, plaintiffs in Shuker didn’t even cite Lohr.  We keep thinking appellate judges should know better than to do things like this, and perhaps they do, but strange things happen when preemption meets product liability.