Not even three weeks ago, back on July 28,  we discussed the court’s rigorous application of Daubert in excluding expert medical causation opinions in Smith v. Terumo Cardiovascular Sys. Corp., a federal case in the district of Utah.  The plaintiff had undergone a heart valve replacement surgery.  As is typical, the surgery required use of a perfusion heart/lung bypass machine.  At some point, the machine stopped working for 10-11 minutes.  The patient died of a heart attack 11 months later.    The decedent’s heirs brought suit against various defendants, including the manufacturer of the heart/lung bypass machine.

 

In the opinion we discussed on July 28, the court excluded most of the opinions of a cardiologist tendered by plaintiffs as an expert on causation.  That expert was refreshingly candid in acknowledging that he could not say for sure that the heart attack was caused by any machine malfunction, though he thought the malfunction probably played some role.  Because the cardiology expert himself acknowledged an “analytical gap,” because he was plainly unqualified to render opinions on neurologic issues, and because he relied on diagnostic methods that were not generally accepted, the court limited the cardiologist expert’s testimony to an opinion that the decedent’s heart was injured during the valve replacement surgery.  Not nothing, but not much, either. 

 

Today, we discuss the same litigation with the same Daubert issue with a different expert but a similar result.  Smith v. Terumo Cardiovascular Sys. Corp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124866 (D. Utah August 7, 2017), involves a different plaintiff expert proffered to opine on medical causation.  This expert was a licensed perfusionist.  No one disputed that this expert could opine on the standard of care applicable to perfusionists and facilities where perfusion services are offered.  What was disputed was whether the expert could testify about a potential defect in the heart/lung bypass machine that may or may not have exhibited during the surgery in question.  The expert was going to testify that a defect in the machine’s air bubble detection system led to the inadvertent 10-11 minute shutdown during the surgery.  The expert primarily relied upon a recall of the heart/lung bypass machine that occurred almost two years after the decedent’s surgery.

 

The court begins its analysis in the right place with Federal Rule of Evidence 702.  Then we get a paragraph on how the law favors admissibility of expert testimony.  We wince whenever we read about such a presumption, anticipating judicial abdication of the gatekeeping function.  But that was not the case here.  Rather, the court carefully assessed the expert’s qualifications and found them wanting.  The expert knew all about perfusion and how to operate the heart/lung bypass machine, but that does mean he possessed the requisite expertise to analyze the design and technical functionality of the machine.  The defense deposed the expert, and did a nice job of bringing out the expert’s lack of expertise in mechanical engineering or design.  The existence of the product recall might have been suggestive, but to explain why the recall was issued, and why the reason for the recall also accounted for the device’s stoppage during the surgery, required precisely the sort of engineering or design expertise that was lacking.

 

Even aside from the threshold issue of qualifications, the court concluded that the expert’s opinions were unreliable.  The expert’s report disclosed reliance on depositions, reports, system logs, and medical records.  That sounds pretty good.  But the expert never explained how the facts he reviewed, including the device recall, added up to a defect in the device that prompted the stoppage during the surgery. The expert theorized that the perfusion system might have issued a false alarm, which then resulted in the stoppage, but nothing concrete supported that theory.  Indeed, the expert admitted in deposition that no one could explain exactly how the alleged malfunction occurred.   (More refreshing candor!) The court seized upon something that plaintiffs usually emphasize: the failure to test.  The plaintiff’s expert had never attempted to test his defect theory.  Testing, of course, is one of the key Daubert factors.  In this case, the expert’s failure to test his theory kept him in the realm of speculation, and kept his opinions away from the jury.

 

 

 

 

We are beginning to feel like the Drug and Device Law theatre critic. Or perhaps we should say “theatre cheerleader,” as we rarely wax critical (at least about the stuff we include in our blog posts).  Last week, we saw the wonderful new musical Come From Away.   It is a true story, and it begins in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001.  On that infamous day, Gander opened its doors, and its collective heart, to many thousands of U.S.A.-bound airline passengers whose planes were forced to land when U.S. airspace was closed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.  Despite the tragedy in the background – and in the foreground for some characters unable to confirm whether relatives were victims of the attacks – the play is an exquisitely energetic and joyful celebration of the openness of the human heart and the resilience of the human spirit.  On the last note of the last song, the cheering audience rose in unison in a manner we have rarely seen.

As in Come From Away, tragic facts are common in our line of work, but they can sometimes provide the framework for a silver lining. In the hands of a rigorous judge committed to correct application of the law despite the pull of sympathy, difficult facts can produce laudable precedent.   Such is not the case in today’s decision out of the Depakote litigation in the Southern District of Illinois.

In E.R.G. v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., 2017 WL 3055520 (S.D. Ill. July 19, 2017), the plaintiff was a child who was conceived while his mother was taking Depakote and who was born with spina bifida and other birth defects.  At trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on his claim of negligent failure to warn and awarded fifteen million dollars in compensatory damages.  (The jury found that the evidence did not support an award of punitive damages.)  The defendant filed a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that: 1) the plaintiff did not produce evidence that the defendant failed to provide adequate warnings of the risk of spina bifida; 2) the plaintiff did not produce evidence that the defendant failed to provide adequate warnings of other birth defects; and 3) the plaintiff failed to prove warnings causation because no doctor testified that a stronger warning would have altered his prescribing decision.  In the alternative, the defendant moved for a new trial, citing evidentiary issues and improper comments during closing argument.

  1.  Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

                        Adequacy of Label Warnings

The defendant argued that the label warnings were adequate as a matter of law because the label contained a black-boxed warning of the (correct) 1-2% incidence of spina bifida when the drug was taken during pregnancy. This portion of the decision – like much of the rest – is confusing, but the judge seems to say that, notwithstanding the accurate spina bifida warning, it might have been the case that other portions of the label were inadequate and that the plaintiff’s mother might be saying that other proper warnings would have resulted in a decision to stop taking the drug when she was pregnant.  It’s not clear where the judge is getting any of this, because none of this hypothetical testimony is cited in the decision.  The judge also states that the plaintiff did not “concede” that the spina bifida warning was adequate.  Instead, according to the judge, the jury could adopt the plaintiff’s expert’s theory that the spina bifida labeling was not adequate because it did not state that the drug should be used by pregnant women “only as a last resort.”  In an opinion rife with wrong, we found this “last resort” argument to be the furthest from the mark.  We know of nothing in law or regulation that invites a judge to deem that only specific semantics would have rendered a warning adequate, when the label warned of the precise risk that befell the plaintiff and included an accurate statement of the incidence of that risk.

Finally, the judge held that the jury could reasonably infer that the label was “materially misleading” when it stated that all antiepileptic drugs carried a risk of birth defects, based on evidence that the defendant’s drug carried a higher risk of spina bifida than other drugs in the class. As such, the judge held, the jury could conclude that the defendant “watered down” the spina bifida risk when it lumped the drug in with others that carried a “much lower risk of spina bifida.” E.R.G., 2017 WL 3055520 at *3.  The judge concluded, “Ultimately, there was more than enough evidence presented in Plaintiff’s case in chief to support an argument that the label, including the spina bifida waning was inadequate.” Id. 

            Warnings Causation 

Because the plaintiff’s mother’s physicians testified that they were aware of Depakote’s teratogenic effects when they prescribed the drug, the defendant argued that the plaintiff had not established that any inadequacy of the drug’s warnings was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff countered that the issue was not whether the defendant “failed to warn generally of ‘teratogenic effects’” but whether the defendant “provided full, accurate, and complete information about Depakote’s total teratogenic risks and instructions on the safe use of Depakote in women of childbearing age . . . .” Id. Forgive us, but we fail to see the distinction here.  One of the last two physicians to prescribe the drug before the plaintiff was conceived testified that he would have advised the plaintiff’s mother to stop taking the drug if he had been advised to use it as a “last resort” (the chosen language of the plaintiff’s expert and the judge), but he later testified that he would not have “taken away” the drug if the plaintiff’s mother had insisted on taking it.  The judge concluded, “. . . [A] reasonable jury could find that . . . a stronger warning would have caused [the last prescriber] (who was already on the fence about the efficacy of Depakote for [the plaintiff’s mother], to stop prescribing the drug.” Id. at *4.   We think this is a stretch, given the testimony.

The judge may have thought so, too, because she made a confusing attempt to justify her conclusion.   She postulated, “If the jury believed that [the doctor] would have discontinued [plaintiff’s mother’s] prescription in favor of a different [drug], then the jury could reasonably infer that she would still have been off of Depakote when she went to see [the other doctor] for her final visit” to the doctors’ clinic. Id. “Nothing in the testimony of [the second doctor] indicates that if [the plaintiff’s mother] had shown up for her appointment on [a different drug], he would have independently restarted the Depakote prescription.  [The second doctor] that, while he did make an independent assessment of [the plaintiff’s mother] at her last visit, he repeatedly asserted that he was ‘refilling’ her medication.” Id. (citation omitted).   Have trouble following that?  Can’t figure out what it has to do with warnings causation?  Neither can we.  Bottom line is that the prescribers knew that the drug could cause spina bifida and prescribed it anyway.  And, even if the imaginary “last resort” language had been included, the doctor would not have taken the drug away from the plaintiff’s mother if she wanted to keep taking it.  We fail to see how any of this adds up to warnings causation, except in the mind of a judge who didn’t want to grant the defendant’s motion.

  1.  Motion for New Trial 

Predictably, the judge also denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial. Some highlights of that decision:

Mother’s Testimony

In this case, unlike what we are used to seeing in the prescription drug context, the patient – the plaintiff’s mother – was apparently warned about birth defects while the plaintiff alleged that the prescribers weren’t. This led to an upside-down trial in which plaintiff didn’t call his mother in his case in chief while the prescribers testified live.   When the defendant learned that plaintiff’s mother was not being called, it filed a motion to compel her to sit for a de bene esse deposition.  The judge denied the motion, and this denial was one of the bases of the defendant’s motion for a new trial.  The judge held that her denial of the defendant’s motion was proper because the defendant had not adequately explained why the mother’s fact deposition (which was not videotaped) “did not accurately capture her testimony.” Id. (This in spite of the fact that, in our experience, plaintiffs routinely win motions like these.)

“Top 3” Opinion 

The defendant challenged the admission of one of the plaintiff’s expert’s opinions that Depakote was one of the “top three” teratogenic drugs in the PDR, arguing that the opinion was not the product of a reliable methodology. The court disagreed, holding, “While a different expert may come to a different conclusion or may even use a different methodology to determine what the three worst drugs are in terms of teratology, that is not the test for excluding an opinion under Daubert.” Id. at *6.

Improper Comments in Plaintiff’s Closing Argument 

The defendant argued that prejudicial comments in the plaintiff’s closing argument entitled it to a new trial.   These included the comment that the defendant was “guilty as hell” (the judge had to explain to the jury that this was not a criminal trial), as well as comments suggesting that compensatory damages should be based on the defendant’s alleged “bad behavior” (the judge halted this line of argument after the defendant objected that it was an argument for punitive damages, not compensatories) and that the jury, through its award “had a chance to make a decision about the kind of world [it] wanted to live in.” Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  The judge, predictably, held that none of the comments was “overly prejudicial.” Id.  

And so the verdict was allowed to stand. While we reiterate that we were not always able to follow the judge’s reasoning, our takeaway was that she started with her desired result and worked backwards.   As for us, our next foray onto the Great White Way occurs next week, when we accede to a request from the Drug and Device Law Rock Climber that we accompany her to the production of 1984 currently playing at the Hudson Theatre.  This production is notable for the proliferation of audience members fainting and vomiting during the torture scene, so we suspect that cheerfulness may not permeate our description.  And we will have to find a case that makes us queasy so we can easily tie it in.  Based on today’s decision, we suspect this will not be too difficult.  We’ll keep you posted.

One of the wonders of parenthood is its ability to deliver interludes so sublime in their exquisite simplicity that they provoke smiles long after they end. Such was an evening last week when we journeyed to New York to celebrate the birthday of the Drug and Device Law Rock Climber, now a waxing college senior completing a summer internship at an insanely cool company in Lower Manhattan.  We were treated to a tour of the office and to the comments that colleagues and mentors reserve for interns’ mothers.  We had perfect saltimbocca at a beloved Italian bistro.  We saw Waitress (again – we love this show).  We stayed overnight on the Climber’s couch, joined at some point by a four-pound Chihuahua.  And we relished every moment with this child-now-adult.  We were awash in happiness for the entire train ride home.

We were also happy (yet another suspect segue) with the court’s evidentiary rulings in today’s case, but decidedly not with the case’s very sad facts—an all-too-frequent dichotomy in our line of work. Because we spend vast amounts of our professional time struggling to achieve the exclusion of plaintiffs’ causation experts, we are always pleased to read a Daubert opinion that layers tidy analytical segments to reach a satisfying conclusion that correctly applies the Rules of Evidence and controlling case law.

In Smith v. Terumo Cardiovascular Systems Corp., et al., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108205 (D. Utah July 12, 2017), the plaintiff’s decedent underwent open-heart surgery in which a heart-lung machine was used to circulate oxygenated blood through the patient’s body while his heart was being repaired.  At some point during the surgery, the machine stopped working for approximately ten minutes.  The plaintiff’s decedent never left the hospital after the surgery.  Eleven months later, he suffered a heart attack and died.

The plaintiff sued the hospital and the heart-lung machine’s manufacturer, asserting the usual claims. She hired a cardiologist as her causation expert, and he opined that the malfunction of the heart-lung machine caused the decedent to suffer physical and mental deterioration and ultimately caused his heart attack and his death.  The defendants moved to exclude the expert’s testimony, arguing that: 1) his causation opinions were unhelpful and unreliable; 2) he was not qualified to opine on neurological injuries; and 3) he should not be allowed “to provide a narrative of events that can and should be provided by other witnesses and records.” Smith, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108205 at *5 (citation omitted).

Explaining that , “to be helpful, [the expert’s] opinion . . . that the . . . surgery and related complications had any causal . . . relationship to Mr. Smith’s injuries and ultimate death must be based on a ‘valid scientific connection,’ the court held that that the expert’s own deposition testimony demonstrated that his opinion would not be helpful to a jury. To wit, in his deposition, the expert admitted that he could not testify with certainty that there was a connection “between the surgery, the ten-minute lack of flow, and the heart attack that caused” the decedent’s death. Id. at *10-11 (citations omitted).   Instead, he could only go as far as concluding that “the events that happened at the time of surgery simply made it more likely” that the decedent would die as the result of a heart attack, although the decedent’s own risk factors –hypertension, smoking, diabetes, family history – were generally considered to be “the main contributors” to the development of the plaque that narrowed the decedent’s arteries and caused his myocardial infarction.  As such, the expert concluded, “[While] I think that what happened . . . played a role in his having a heart attack and made it less likely that he would survive a heart attack, but I cannot say that it caused his heart attack.Id. at *11-12 (emphasis in original, citation omitted).

While this is refreshing (and uncommon) candor for a plaintiff’s expert, it is obviously not “helpful” to the establishment of causation. Moreover, the court held, even if the testimony had been helpful, it was not reliable, because the expert did not “provide a basis to conclude that the relationship [was] causal and not merely corollary,” leaving too large a gap between his premise and conclusion, and because he failed to account for obvious alternative explanations for the decedent’s death.   Id. at *15-16.

The expert also concluded, contrary to the results of the decedent’s autopsy, that the decedent had suffered an earlier heart attack, around the time of the surgery, before the one that ultimately killed him eleven months later. The court held that this opinion was also inadmissible because the expert’s diagnostic methods were not generally accepted.  As such, the court concluded, “To allow the jury to hear [the expert’s] opinion on this point would be to allow the jury to hear conclusions based on inferior diagnostic metrics.  This will not be permitted.” Id. at *20.

Next, the court addressed the expert’s opinion that the decedent “suffered an injury to the brain due to prolonged lack of oxygenated blood flow to the brain.” Id. at *20-21.  The court held that the expert lacked the “knowledge, skill, training, or education that would qualify him to diagnose neurologic injuries.” Id. at 21 (internal punctuation and citation omitted).  Moreover, the opinion lacked any scientific basis, as the autopsy revealed no sign of hypoxic encephalopathy.   The court concluded, “[The expert] is not being as careful as he would be in his regular professional work outside his paid litigation consulting.  A jury has no use for [this type of speculation], especially from someone whose expertise lies elsewhere.” Id. at *24.

The court did not exclude the expert’s entire report, permitting him to testify that the decedent’s heart was injured during his surgery and to indicate what he relied upon to form his opinions. It held, however, that the expert would not be permitted “to give a general narrative of Mr. Smith’s health before, during, and after the surgery.” Id.

We like this opinion. It draws the correct lines, and it does so in clear and logical fashion.  It also reinforces the oft-apparent conclusion that plaintiffs’ lawyers disserve their clients when they hire the wrong people, and pay them to say the wrong things, in their quests for big settlement paychecks.   We will continue to keep you posted on judges who properly bar the courtroom doors against such experts, and those who don’t.

Today we feature another guest post from our European correspondents, Reed Smith partner Marilyn Moberg and associate Kathryn Bond.  There has been another significant decision from the Court of Justice (its description, not ours) of the European Union, and once again it is bad news for manufacturers of life-saving prescription products – this time vaccines.  Without stealing our guest bloggers’ thunder, let’s just say that the European attitude appears to be “Daubert?  We don’t need no stinkin’ Daubert.”  For the details, see below.  As always our guest bloggers deserve 100% of the credit (and any blame) for what they write.

***********

Bonjour à tous.

Now that we have completely exhausted our entire high school French vocabulary, for today’s blog post we are traveling back across the Atlantic to France and Luxembourg. Today, we examine a recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union relating to the evidentiary requirements for finding a causal link between a vaccine and an unrelated disease where there is no medical proof to support the existence of such a causal link. For our American readers who are familiar with the way vaccine cases used to be litigated, one may get a feeling of “déja vu,” and not in a good way.

If we cast our minds back to the 1980s scare over the DPT vaccine, large jury awards were given to plaintiffs despite the fact that most public health officials did not believe that there was a link between the vaccine and certain autism spectrum disorders. As a result of these cases, a number of vaccine makers decided to cease production. For the United States government, this development was worrying and threatened a drop in important childhood vaccinations. In order to encourage the continued production of vaccines, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which set up the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) in 1988 to compensate individuals (or their families) allegedly injured by certain covered childhood vaccines. The compensation scheme is funded by a tax on vaccines purchased. The scheme applies only to conditions that have already been determined administratively to be associated with the vaccine, therefore relieving (i) the plaintiff of the burden of proving a general causal link between the vaccine and the injury; and (ii) the vaccine producer of the cost of defending or settling expensive civil liability cases. The plaintiff is still required to prove that, on balance, a specific causal link between the vaccine and the injury. Although this scheme is limited to certain injuries caused by certain vaccines, it significantly reduced the number of product liability claims against manufacturers for vaccines. See generally Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 562 U.S. 223, 226-30 (2011) (describing NVICP and reasons for its enactment).

Now, back to the case at hand, which is Case C-621/15, N.W. and Others v Sanofi Pasteur MSD and Others (NW v Sanofi). The judgment has been widely reported as particularly favorable for claimants because it confirms that a claimant can establish, despite total lack of individualized corroborating medical evidence, a causal link between the vaccine and the disease where there is “serious, specific and consistent evidence” that a causal link exists.

By way of background, EU law on product liability is set out in the Product Liability Directive 85/374/EEC. Article 4 of the Directive stipulates that, in order to win a product liability claim, the claimant must prove the damage, the defect and the causal relationship between the defect and the damage. In other words, and unsurprisingly, the burden of proof is on the injured party.

In the NW v Sanofi case, NW developed multiple sclerosis a short period after being vaccinated against Hepatitis B. Although medical research has not established a connection between the Hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis, the claimant sought to rely on a provision of French case law of the Cour de Cassation (the highest French court). The case law provides that, in relation to the liability of producers of vaccines, proof of a causal link can be derived from “serious, specific and consistent presumptions” in the absence of medical research. The claimant believed that, on the basis of this case law, the French courts could take into account the following facts to find a “lien de causalité” or “causal link”: (1) the short time lapse between the administration of the vaccine and the onset of the disease; and (2) the patient’s lack of any personal or family history of the disease. Essentially, any product manufacturer becomes an insurer against any qualifying medical condition that might manifest itself during this short time lapse, regardless of scientific basis.

At first instance, the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Nanterre, France, found in favour of the claimant, but the decision was subsequently overturned on appeal by the Cour d’Appel in Versailles, France and the Cour d’Appel in Paris, France. When the case finally reached the Cour de Cassation, the judges faced some difficult questions concerning the compatibility of its case law with Article 4 of the Product Liability Directive. In particular, does Article 4 override France’s own national rules regarding the level of proof required to find a causal link between the defect and the damage? This was clearly a question of interpretation of EU law. The Cour de Cassation therefore referred this question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) for a preliminary ruling.

For those (most) of you not familiar with EU procedural law, here is some important background. The CJEU is based in Luxembourg and is the highest court of the European Union. The CJEU plays an important role in the EU, which includes interpreting EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way across all 28 (soon to be 27) Member States. One of the ways in which the CJEU achieves this is through the “renvoi préjudiciel” or “reference for a preliminary ruling,” which bears some resemblance to the American procedure of federal courts certifying state-law questions to state high courts for resolution. This procedure enables the courts of each Member State to refer questions to the CJEU for a ruling on the interpretation of a specific point of EU law. When the CJEU gives its ruling, its sole mandate is to rule on the point of EU law in question only.

In the case of NW v Sanofi, the CJEU considered the following points:

Whether Article 4 precludes the French Courts from considering its own national evidentiary rules (including those described above), in circumstances where medical research has not established a causal link between the administering of the vaccine and the disease, when determining whether there is a defect in the vaccine and whether there is a causal link between that defect and the disease?

In response to this question, the CJEU gave the following analysis at paras [18]-[43]:

  1. It is ultimately the injured party’s responsibility to prove the damage, the defect and the causal relationship between the defect and the damage (para [19]).
  2. The Product Liability Directive does not contain any definition of the concept of “causal relationship” for the purposes of Article 4 (para [22]). This means that, taking into account the principle of procedural autonomy of each Member State, it is for each Member State to establish:
    1. the way in which evidence is to be provided;
    2. what evidence is admissible;
    3. the principles governing the national court’s assessment of the evidence; and
    4. the level of proof required (para [25]).
  3. The national court’s procedural autonomy should not, however, undermine the effectiveness of EU procedural rules. For example, the national rules should not bring about a reversal of the burden of proof set out in Article 4 of the Product Liability Directive (paras [26]-[27]).
  4. The national courts must ensure that the evidence provided is sufficiently serious, specific and consistent to warrant the conclusion that, notwithstanding the evidence produced by the producer, a defect in the product appears to be the most plausible explanation for the occurrence of the damage, with the result that the defect and the causal link may reasonably be considered to be established (see para [37]).
  5. Although the CJEU is not mandated to apply EU law to the facts of a specific case, the CJEU commented that facts such as:
    1. a short time lapse between the administration of the vaccine and the occurrence of the disease;
    2. the existence of a significant number of reported cases of the disease occurring following such vaccines being administered; and
    3. a lack of personal and familial history of the disease,Based on the above analysis, the answer to the question was a clear “non,” provided that the specific application of a national court’s evidentiary rules do not result in the burden of proof in Article 4 being disregarded or undermined.  Whether Article 4 precludes national evidentiary rules that are based on presumptions (such as a set of pre-determined causation-related facts) according to which, in circumstances where medical research has not established a causal link between the administering of the vaccine and the disease, a causal link can automatically be established?
    4. The second question raised by the Cour de Cassation was the following:
    5. could lead a national court to consider that the injured party has discharged its burden of proof under Article 4 (see para [41]).

In response to this question, the CJEU raised strong concerns. In particular, the CJEU held that establishing a set of pre-determined facts to automatically establish a causal link would make such presumptions irrefutable. This would therefore deprive the defendant from adducing evidence or putting forward arguments (such as scientific arguments) to rebut that presumption, which would not be a fair or effective result. Even if the defendant could rebut the presumption, the burden of proof would effectively be on the defendant rather than the injured party. This would therefore undermine the burden of proof of the injured party set out in Article 4 of the Product Liability Directive.

Based on the above analysis, the answer to the question was a strong “oui.”

There is no general Daubert requirement of verifiable scientific basis for causation in the EU. The CJEU’s judgment is a disturbing development as it lowers even further the standard of proof required from the injured party. However, as highlighted above, the national courts must ensure that the evidence provided is sufficiently serious, specific and consistent (however that might be interpreted) to warrant the conclusion that, notwithstanding the producer’s evidence, a defect in the product appears to be the most plausible explanation for the occurrence of the damage. Although the standard is lower, it is still a threshold. If the CJEU were to find causation without medical proof, the evidence brought by the injured party would have to be very compelling.

Now the pessimists – or perhaps “realists” – out there who remember the pre-NVICP vaccine litigation cases may think that this could make it too easy for plaintiffs to establish causation where there is no corroborating medical evidence and, as happened in the United States, result in a downturn in the availability of vaccines in Europe. Experts in the field are clearly concerned.

However, the full implications of this case are still unclear, and will perhaps remain unclear for some time. The case clearly reduces the burden of proof on the plaintiff, thus raising the spectre of adverse market consequences, but it remains to be seen how this will be adopted in practice by the national courts of the Member States.

In terms of the case at hand, the CJEU did not appear to contradict the most recent decision of the Cour d’Appel in Paris, which found that the plaintiff had not proved causation. It could (we wish) be a Pyrrhic victory for the plaintiff who, ironically, will likely be found by the relevant French court to have not proved causation.

We should also remember that this CJEU case concerns the application of national evidentiary rules. In this case, the French law of evidence set out in its Civil Code. As each Member State will have its own national evidentiary rules, the impact of the CJEU decision will vary depending on the relevant Member State’s own evidentiary rules.

Causation or no causation, that remains the question

As Voltaire so intelligently put:

« Le hasard est un mot vide; rien ne peut exister sans une cause »

(“Chance is a word void of sense; nothing can exist without a cause”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the Phillies stinking the joint out – off to their worst start since World War II – and both of Boranian’s local teams in last place, too (not as deeply buried as the Phillies), use of baseball imagery might seem a bit painful right now.  Only our DC-based blogger has had anything worth cheering about lately, and with what’s going on there recently….  Baseball must be a welcome distraction.

But a one-two-three inning was what came to mind in looking at the new decisions that turned up last week. We were struck by three relatively easy wins for defendants.  Individually, they would not warrant separate post, but under a “totality of the evidence” standard, when added together, we found them worth discussing

The first is N.K. v. Abbott Laboratories, 2017 WL 2241507 (E.D.N.Y. May 22, 2017), a Depakote/birth defects case.  There are a number of these cases around, and we have already commented on several.  But we have to say, if the other side’s experts are as poor as they were in N.K, this litigation deservedly isn’t going anywhere.  N.K. went away on summary judgment after all of the plaintiff’s “experts” – and the term deserves to be in quotes – were excluded from testifying.  The first purported expert was the minor-plaintiff’s treating pediatrician, who was totally out of her depth:

[The witness] has never conducted research on Depakote or valproic acid. Nor has she researched the effects of in utero exposure to valproic acid (“valproate exposure”).  Prior to [minor plaintiff’s] first visit, her knowledge of Depakote was limited to refilling prescriptions for epileptic patients.  Since that initial visit, she has conducted little to no additional research on Depakote, valproic acid, or valproate exposure.

2017 WL 2241507, at *2 (record citations omitted).  Unsurprisingly, the court found this witness “not qualified to testify that Depakote caused [minor-plaintiff’s] injuries.”  Id. at *3.  She possessed no applicable medical experience nor had she bothered even to review the relevant literature.  Id. (she “did not perform any research or make any additional investigation that might qualify her as an expert on valproate exposure”).  Instead, “[h]er attempts to understand the cause of [minor-plaintiff’s] injuries were limited to a single review of a single medical book, the day of his first visit.”  Id.  This is hardly the kind of expert we would expect to see in litigation where a strong causation case is present.

The second expert in N.K. “ha[d] a more substantial background” – it could hardly have been less – but was not even a medical doctor.  Id. at *4.  Again, we would not expect to see this kind of “expert” in a strong case.  Lack of a medical degree is a problem.  “[C]ourts have consistently drawn a distinction between the qualifications of medical and non-medical doctors, noting that non-medical doctors who are qualified to diagnose a medical condition may be unable to reliably determine its cause.”  Id.  This witness was a “teratologist and toxicologist,” but had no relevant diagnostic expertise.  “[B]y his own testimony he has never evaluated children, has never been called upon to diagnose dysmorphic features or autism in a child, and is not a clinician.”  Id.

Nor did these unqualified “experts” use proper methodology.  They both purported to engage in the last refuge of a Daubert scoundrel – differential diagnosis.  The pediatrician “viewed [minor plaintiff’s] condition as either genetic or the result of prenatal valproate exposure.”  Id. at *5.  Which one didn’t she investigate?

She reached this conclusion before eliminating any genetic causes. . . .  Not only did [she] fail to eliminate alternative causes before reaching her initial conclusion, she lacked the knowledge to independently rule out genetic causes.

Id.  Genetics were a serious alternative  “[A]t least four other treating physicians have recommended further genetic testing to determine the cause of [minor plaintiff’s] injuries.”  Id.  The court could hardly be faulted for wondering what these plaintiffs were hiding in not having this testing done.

The other expert – the one that wasn’t even a doctor – was, if anything worse.  He “did not conduct his own independent investigation,” rather “[h]is opinion is based entirely on reviewing existing reports provided to him by Plaintiffs.”  Id. at *7.  Having to spoon-feed an expert is another indicator of a weak case.  Beyond that, his “attempt to rule out potential alternative causes of [minor plaintiff’s] condition is plagued by the same problems as” the pediatrician’s.  Indeed, “[h]e relied on [her] flawed report in ruling out genetic causes.”  Id.

Finally, plaintiffs failed to slip the pediatrician’s opinions in the back door, as “factual” testimony by a treater.  A treater’s testimony was equally subject to Daubert:

Even if such an opinion could be read into her records, classifying [her] as a fact expert does not relieve this Court of its duty to ensure she utilized reliable methods in reaching her opinion.  Courts in this district have found that when a treating physician seeks to render an opinion on causation, that opinion is subject to the same standards of scientific reliability that govern the expert opinions of physicians hired solely for the purposes of litigation.

Id. at *8 (citations and quotation marks omitted).  To us, this is the most significant legal ruling in N.K.

Summary judgment granted.  One away on a dribbler to the mound.

Next up, Rincon v. Covidien, 2017 WL 2242969 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2017). Rincon failed on a motion to dismiss, because of TwIqbal.  Rincon involved hernia mesh, and an alleged injury suffered more than six years after implantation.  Id. at *1.  Plaintiff’s complaint had a rather fundamental – and fatal – flaw.  It failed to allege that a defect caused the alleged injuries:

[Plaintiff] fails to allege any facts that plausibly establish such causation. . . .  Taken together, these facts − even liberally construed (not that there is a basis for liberal construction here) − fall far short of demonstrating that [defendant’s] mesh was a “but for” cause of [her] later injuries. . . .  Nothing in the Amended Complaint even endeavors to explain why the mesh is a more likely, let alone proximate, cause of [plaintiff’s] alleged harms.

Id.  One would have thought that, with an obvious serious timing issue, the plaintiff would have tried harder in Rincon to allege the sort of critical facts supportive of causation.  The absence of these facts is another marker of a weak case.

But not only did the plaintiff in Rincon fail to allege causation; she also failed to allege defect:

Under New York law, Rincon must prove the existence of a defect. . . .  But [plaintiff] fails to allege a defect except in the most conclusory terms:  that [defendant] manufactured the PCO mesh, that the mesh was used during her hernia surgery in 2006, that she needed subsequent medical procedures in 2012 and 2013, and thus [defendant] must not have “properly manufactured, tested, inspected, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, examined, sold, supplied, prepared and/or provided [ ] the proper warnings” regarding the mesh.

Id. at *2.  To make matters worse, plaintiff tried to make up her pleading defects in her brief opposing dismissal.  The court was not impressed.  Those assertions “serve only to illustrate the deficiencies in her Amended Complaint − namely, that it does not identify any actual defect in the coating and says nothing about how the coating, even if defective, caused [her] specific injuries.”  Id.

On top of that, plaintiff only “suggest[ed],” but did not actually seek, leave to amend.  Id.  Plaintiff’s notably poor pleading resulted in dismissal with prejudice.   “[E]ven if [she] were to add her new ‘facts’ . . ., her claims would all still fail for the reasons discussed above.”

Called third strike.  Two down, and add one to our TwIqbal cheat sheet.

The final out was made by Merancio v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., 2017 WL 2257124 (E.D. Cal. May 23, 2017), where summary judgment was granted after the plaintiffs failed to retain the allegedly defective implant.  The complaint itself was a mess, which certainly did plaintiffs no favors.  “[N]either factual details concerning plaintiffs’ claimed injuries nor specific legal theories of liability have been alleged in any detail.”  Id. at *1.  Having lost the device that supposedly failed plaintiffs “presented no substantive evidence concerning the merits of their claims.”  Id.  Instead, they pursued another all too common “last refuge of a scoundrel” tactics – attempting to litigate the defendant’s supposed discovery lapses.

That didn’t work this time.  Whatever deficiencies (if any at all) in the defendant’s initial disclosures were irrelevant by the time summary judgment rolled around.  Even if the identity of the affiant who supported the summary judgment motion was disclosed too late, it was disclosed “well prior to the close of discovery,” and the witness “was ultimately deposed by plaintiffs.”  Id. at *4.  Like too much pine tar on a bat, the violation, if it existed at all, was harmless.  Or, to mix sports metaphors, “no harm, no foul.”  “Plaintiffs have made no showing that they were prejudiced by the timing of defendant’s disclosures.  Indeed, plaintiffs have made no allegations of any harm − not even general, vague, and conclusory ones − flowing from defendant’s allegedly belated disclosures.”  Id.

So plaintiffs tried again, arguing that the court should ignore the defendant’s affidavit, which was factually undisputed, because the affiant “failed to include a list of cases in which he has appeared as an expert.”  Id. at *5.  The court was having none of plaintiffs’ trivial pursuit.  If plaintiffs thought this deficiency was so important, they should have done something about it earlier, rather than pursue a nitpicking litigation strategy:

[P]laintiffs’ counsel never asked defense counsel or the expert for this list and never filed a motion to compel with the court seeking the information or the imposition of sanctions. . . .  Again, plaintiffs do not even generally suggest how they have been harmed as a result of these minor deficiencies in [defendant’s] expert report.  Indeed, when asked at the hearing on the pending motion, plaintiffs’ counsel suggested he purposefully did not pursue any further efforts to obtain the list of cases in which [the affiant] had appeared as an expert because, in counsel’s view, it made defendant’s expert “attackable.”

Id. (emphasis added).

With plaintiffs’ discovery smokescreen blown away, summary judgment was inevitable.  “It [was] undisputed on summary judgment that, at the time the parts used in [plaintiff’s] knee replacement left the control of defendant, they had been inspected, passed quality control inspections, and were in compliance with all applicable FDA regulations.”  Id. at *7.  Defect at sale is a “necessary element” of strict liability.  Id.  Further, California simply does not recognize strict liability design defect claims involving prescription medical products.  Id.  Negligence failed because of a “complete failure of proof” that the device failed when it shouldn’t have.  Id. at *8.  Finally, plaintiffs’ warranty claim was dismissed (in addition to the above grounds) on an interesting legal ruling − that the personal injury damages were not available for alleged breach of contract:

Here, plaintiff seeks general damages for pain, suffering, and inconvenience, and special damages for medical expenses, future medical expenses, loss of earnings, [plaintiff] seeks here are generally not cognizable in claims sounding in contract in California.

Id. (citations omitted).  Finally, with no evidence “that the defendant negligently injured” her spouse, that wife-plaintiff’s consortium claim bit the dust. Id. at *9.

Side retired on a (very) foul popup.

Weak claims all in N.K., Rincon, and Merancio. Daubert, TwIqbal, and simple failure to prove the claim defeated these actions, and did so fairly expeditiously.   Which is as it should be.  Weak claims have no business being brought, and where plaintiffs are unable to hide weak claims in MDLs, these cases demonstrate that (at least in the federal courts), the civil justice system still works.

This post is from the non-Reed Smith side of the blog.

The plaintiff thought she had a strong summary judgment opposition. She included the deposition testimony of her prescribing doctor, who suggested that Boston Scientific’s warnings for the pelvic mesh device were inadequate. And she included her own affidavit, in which she said that she wouldn’t have agreed to let her doctor implant that device in her if she’d known that it could cause the negative life changing conditions that she allegedly later suffered. Plaintiff thought her opposition was enough to save her failure to warn claim. It wasn’t. The MDL court granted partial summary judgment. It turned out that Plaintiff’s opposition papers contained a big gap—no evidence of proximate causation. Plaintiff offered no evidence that her doctor read Boston Scientific’s Directions for Use (“DFU”). And, if her prescribing doctor didn’t read the DFU, changing it to include the allegedly proper warning wouldn’t have changed anything, particularly her doctor’s decision to prescribe.

That wasn’t the end for plaintiff, though. She had other claims that survived and that she could take to trial. That trial, however, would happen before a different court.  After its summary judgment decision and completing other pretrial matters, the MDL court transferred the case back to the original transferor court for trial.

Plaintiff saw this as an opportunity. She moved the new court to reconsider the MDL court’s summary judgment decision. Her basis was that, in fact, her prescribing doctor had read the DFU. The plaintiff had simply failed to present that portion of his deposition testimony to the MDL court. On that basis, she asked the new trial court to change the MDL court’s decision and deny summary judgment against the failure to warn claim.

No luck. She lost her reconsideration motion.

So, with no failure to warn claim, Plaintiff went to trial.

She lost there too.

Undaunted and still fighting to revive her failure to warn claim, plaintiff appealed to the Fourth Circuit. She challenged both the MDL court’s original summary judgment decision and the trial court’s denial of her motion to reconsider that decision.

And she lost again.

All of this is described in the Fourth Circuit’s recent opinion. Carlton v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2017 WL 1854278 (4th Cir. May 9, 2017). The Fourth Circuit saw plaintiff’s problems as both substantive and procedural. Substantively, a failure to warn claim cannot survive without evidence that the doctor would have read the warning. Id. at *3. Procedurally, it’s not the court’s job to find the evidence that supports proximate causation. It’s the parties’ job to present that evidence to the court: “The responsibility to comb through the record in search of facts relevant to summary judgment falls on the parties—not the court. We therefore affirm the MDL court’s partial summary judgment award.” Id.

Her procedural failings were particularly problematic on her challenge to the trial’s court’s denial of reconsideration. This wasn’t new evidence on which she was relying. It was evidence that had indisputably been available at the time the MDL court decided the summary judgment motion:

At oral argument, Appellant’s counsel asserted that in light of this late revelation, the MDL court’s summary judgment award constituted clear error causing manifest injustice. Not so. We have consistently affirmed denials of motions to reconsider summary judgment rulings where the motion is merely a vessel for the very evidence that was initially lacking in opposition to summary judgment. Significantly, the entirety of Dr. Kennelly’s deposition testimony was available well before summary judgment briefing, and the additional portions of testimony Appellant provided to the district court for “reconsideration” thus did not amount to the type of evidence constituting grounds for a valid motion for reconsideration. We therefore affirm the district court’s denial of Appellant’s motion for reconsideration.

Id. at *4.

While not for lack of fighting on plaintiff’s part, we suspect that this one is now finally over.

May 10 is an important day in the history of the law.  On this date, way back in 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato is a vegetable, not a fruit.  The case was called Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893).  The issue concerned application of the Tariff Act of 1883, which imposed a tax on vegetables, but not fruits.  The appellant was one of New York City’s biggest produce sellers.  He imported lots of tomatoes, and was looking to dodge the tax.  He cited dictionaries defining tomatoes, in a technical/botanical sense, as the “’fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed.”  But, alas, the High Court ruled that “[t]hese definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”  Science be damned, people eat tomatoes in their salads, not desserts, so they are vegetables, not fruits.  Because common parlance prevailed, the taxpayer did not.

 

*                    *                    *                    *                    *

 

We’ll exploit this historical legal oddity and its exaltation of common understanding as a semi-ironic preface to a case where a pro se plaintiff went down in flames in a product liability case.  In Coleson v. Janssen Pharmaceutical, Inc., et al., , 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68072 (S.D.N.Y. May 3, 2017), the plaintiff filed a pro se complaint against the defendants in New York state court (the Bronx, to be specific) , which alleged that he developed gynecomastia as a result of taking Risperdal and generic risperidone. The defendants removed the suit to federal court.  Things were already heading in the right direction for the defense.  After discovery, during which the plaintiff apparently never found an expert on causation, the defendants moved for summary judgment.  The defendants won.  The plaintiff lost.  Common sense also won: the court rejected innovator liability for an alleged failure to warn by a generic competitor.  Finally, we are reminded of that most common of courts, The People’s Court, where Judge Wapner routinely blasted plaintiffs for not having the requisite paperwork to back up their claims. 

 

After the plaintiff in Coleson had been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia around 2009 or 2010, physicians prescribed Risperdal and risperidone. Risperdal is the brand name product and was manufactured/sold by the defendants.  Since at least 1996, Risperdal’s FDA-approved disclosures stated that Risperdal is associated with endocrine-related side-effects, including gynecomastia.   Risperidone is the generic version.  It had been available since 2008.  Medicaid paid for all of the plaintiff’s prescriptions. New York’s Medicaid program excludes coverage of brand-name drugs when there is an FDA-approved generic equivalent on the market unless one’s healthcare provider specifically requests an exemption for the patient.  So it looks as if the plaintiff was probably taking risperidone.  That is, he took risperidone until sometime in 2013-14, when he switched to an entirely different atypical antipsychotic, which was also associated with gynecomastia.  The plaintiff was diagnosed with gynecomastia in 2015. 

 

Despite his usage of generic risperidone and a different antipsychotic, the plaintiff sued only the Risperdal brand manufacturer.  As with most pro se complaints, the theories of the case were less than pellucid.  The defendants and the court construed the causes of action as failure to warn and design defect against the brand manufacturers.  The plaintiff alleged that the side-effect information in the generic risperidone was different from the FDA-approved Risperdal label.  The defendants’ summary judgment motion argued that the plaintiff’s claims failed for lack of any evidence that the plaintiff ingested name-brand Risperdal, as opposed to generic risperdone. The defendants argued that they could not be held liable for either failure to warn or design defect for an injury resulting from a product that they did not manufacture, distribute, or sell. The defendants also argued that the plaintiff could not show medical causation between Risperdal and his gynecomastia.

 

Yes, we are confronted yet again with the issue of innovator liability.  Under Erie, the federal court needed to determine the substantive law of the forum, New York.  The New York Court of Appeals has not yet addressed whether a manufacturer of a name-brand prescription drug can be held liable for injuries resulting from another company’s generic equivalent. But there is at least one federal case, Goldych v. Eli Lilly & Co., No. 04 Civ. 1477 (GLS)(GJD), 2006 WL 2038436 (N.D.N.Y. July 19, 2006), and one New York state case, Weese v. Pfizer, Inc., 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4761, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 32563 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. Oct. 8, 2013), rejecting innovator liability.  Those two New York decisions are in accord with the majority of courts to consider the topic: fifty-five other state courts across twenty-one states, in addition to all six circuit courts of appeal, have ruled that innovator liability makes no sense.  See our general innovator liability posts here and here. The Conte decision in California, which applied such innovator liability, stands as an egregious, eccentric exception.   The Coleson court acknowledged that there are a couple of cases clumsily following Conte, but the Coleson court declined to join the heresy.

 

Supporting its decision, the Coleson court discussed a recent asbestos case that, at first blush (but only first blush) seemed to offer some hope for the plaintiff.   Last year, in In re N.Y. City Asbestos Litig., 27 N.Y.3d 765, 59 N.E.3d 458 (2016), the New York Court of Appeals held that manufacturers had a duty to warn of potential dangers resulting from their products’ use in conjunction with third party products. To support this interpretation, the asbestos court observed that the manufacturers had “knowledge and ability to warn of the dangers” when consumers used the product with a third party’s product. As we discussed at the time, here, that is quite a bit different from being required to warn about use of a competitor’s product, when the defendant’s own product was not being used at all.  The Coleson court reasoned that the asbestos ruling was unlikely to make “the cost of liability and litigation . . . unreasonable”  and, moreover, the manufacturers “derive[d] a benefit from the sale of the [other party’s] product.” This rationale weighed in the opposite direction in Coleson. The brand defendants “had no oversight in the manufacturing of the generic drugs. They earned no profit from the sale of the generic drugs. Given the length of time generic drugs can sell following a patent’s expiration, to find a new duty would unforeseeably expand the cost of liability on brand-name drug manufacturers.”  Coleson, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68072 at *10.  

 

Goodbye failure to warn claim.  The plaintiff’s failure to warn claim was dismissed because he alleged a warning defect as to only risperdone, over which the defendants had no duty of care.

 

The Coleson plaintiff’s design defect claim also failed.  He could not show by a preponderance of the evidence that he ever ingested name-brand Risperdal. The plaintiff’s declaration and deposition stated that he was prescribed, amongst other drugs, “Risperdal (risperidone)” and that a hospital in 2009 or 2010 dispensed “Risperdal and/or risperidone.” The plaintiff also claimed that hospital records proving he actually received Risperdal in the hospital were likely destroyed by a fire in January 2015. [We know some especially nettlesome plaintiff lawyers who would turn this misfortune into a spoliation claim, but the pro se plaintiff lacked either the expertise or chutzpah to pursue that vexatious path.] It was true that the plaintiff’s medical records at times recorded his prescription as only for Risperdal.  But generic risperidone is regularly written as “Risperdal (risperidone),” a nomenclature even the plaintiff repeatedly adopted in his papers.  That a drug is prescribed under its brand-name does not mean that a patient receives that name-brand drug, and it is hardly justifiable to infer that it does. In the absence of real evidence, the Coleson court was unimpressed by the plaintiff’s “mere speculation or conjecture” as to Risperdal usage.  Coleson, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 68072 at *11.

 

But let’s for the moment speculate that a “fair-minded jury” could speculate that the plaintiff was prescribed brand name Risperdal somewhere in the relevant time-frame. And yet it was undisputed that by 2009, when the plaintiff was first prescribed the medicine, risperidone was a widely available generic to Risperdal. It was also undisputed that all of the plaintiff’s prescriptions were paid by Medicaid.  Aside from exceptional circumstances the plaintiff never showed, the plaintiff’s prescriptions under Medicaid needed to be filled with generic drug equivalents. Thus, from the evidence presented, no jury could draw the “justifiable inference” that the plaintiff received name-brand Risperdal for his prescriptions. There might well have been an inference of injury from ingestion of risperdone, but the Coleson plaintiff had not sued the generic manufacturer.  Id. at *12.

 

Even assuming that the plaintiff had ingested Risperdal, his design defect claim against the defendants would still fail because he could not establish that Risperdal caused his gynecomastia. The Coleson court embraced the requirement in products liability cases that, to establish causation, plaintiffs must offer admissible expert testimony regarding both general and specific causation. The requirement is particularly pertinent where a causal link is beyond the knowledge or expertise of a lay jury.  In the Coleson case, there was no such expert in sight. Id. at *13.   

 

The plaintiff suggested he did not need an expert on causation when he had something even better:  the Risperdal label.  That label contains a warning regarding gynecomastia.  The plaintiff also pointed to a  July 2015 medical report, which concluded that the plaintiff’s gynecomastia “is related to phychiatric [sic] medical ingestion.”  The court did not buy either of these arguments.  First, Risperdal’s warning label cannot establish general causation: “Product warning labels can have over-inclusive information on them, often out of ‘an abundance of causation or the avoidance of lawsuits.’  Coleson, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68072 at *14 (quoting In re Mirena IUD Prods. Liab. Litig., , 202 F. Supp. 3d  304, 323 (S.D.N.Y. 2016)).  Unless a warning label specifically says that an alleged injury can be caused by a drug, courts have held that a drug’s product warning label alone cannot “raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to general causation.”  Id. Risperdal’s label states merely that it “elevates prolactin levels” and that “gynecomastia . . . ha[s] been reported in patients receiving prolactin elevating compounds.” This information is not the same as an admission of “a genuine phenomenon” creating a “material fact with respect to general causation.”

 

Nor did the Coleson plaintiff’s July 2015 medical report establish proximate cause. The plaintiff claimed to have taken Risperdal around only 2009-10. Throughout 2010 to 2014, the plaintiff took risperidone. In early 2014, the plaintiff switched to a different antipsychotic, which is also associated with cases of gynecomastia. The plaintiff was diagnosed with gynecomastia only in early 2015, and the medical report to which the plaintiff points indicates the plaintiff had taken both risperidone and the other antipsychotic. This report does not state which, if any, of these drugs was responsible for the plaintiff’s injury. Without competent medical expert testimony on the issue of causation, a jury would be left only to “theorize” as to how the plaintiff came to suffer from gynecomastia. Id. Accordingly, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was granted.

 

So what we have here is a good result from a smart court.  That decision was made a bit easier because a pro se plaintiff sued the wrong party, hired no expert who would render some frail opinion on ‘substantial causative factor,’’ and failed to assemble decent evidence of usage.  What’s that saying about someone who acts as his own lawyer?

 

 

We confess, we can’t think of any good reason for admitting evidence concerning product risks that the plaintiff in a particular case never actually encountered – yet plaintiffs try it with a straight face all the time.  It’s another example of plaintiffs throwing mud against the wall to see if it will stick; anything to divert attention from a weak merits case concerning the injuries actually being claimed.

Sometimes plaintiffs argue that, even though they never encountered a particular risk, it was so severe and downright scary that if they had only been warned about that risk, they wouldn’t have used the product.  Trouble is, while that argument could be causal in a “but for” sense (assuming plaintiffs aren’t lying), it’s not causal in the legal, or proximate, sense.  One of the major tort treatises explains the difference:

More centrally, the injury suffered must be within the class of injury that the warning requirement was meant to avoid.  For example, the plaintiff, if properly warned that asbestos might cause cancer, might have ceased to work around asbestos.  A failure to give such a warning could result in liability if the plaintiff did develop cancer as a result of asbestos exposure.  But the failure to provide such a warning would not result in liability if the plaintiff, not being warned, kept her job and lost a hand in a job-related machine accident.  In that example, failure to warn would be a cause in fact – the plaintiff would have been elsewhere, not working at the machine, if a proper warning had been given – but it is not a proximate legal cause.  It is not, in other words, within the risk that a warning was designed to avoid.

Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, at 1018 (2001).

Federal appellate decisions similarly reject this sort of “causation” over and over, initially in cases involving non-prescription products.  Most commonly, asbestos plaintiffs have been precluded from introducing evidence of cancer when they had no such injury, or even a significant risk.  See O’Banion v. Owens Corning Fiberglass Corp., 968 F.2d 1011, 1013 (10th Cir. 1992) (“evidence of cancer is so prejudicial that in the absence of expert medical testimony that ‘a reasonable degree of medical certainty’ exists that the plaintiff will develop cancer, such evidence should be excluded”) (applying Oklahoma law); Smith v. A.C. & S, Inc., 843 F.2d 854, 859 (5th Cir. 1988) (cancer evidence in non-cancer case “is highly inflammatory and understandably incites the passions and fears of most reasonable individuals”) (applying Louisiana law); Jackson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 750 F.2d 1314, 1321 (5th Cir. 1985) (same) (applying Mississippi law); In re Related Asbestos Cases, 543 F. Supp. 1152, 1160 (N.D. Cal. 1982) (excluding reference to cancer “in any cases in which the plaintiff has not contracted cancer”).

The same result has occurred in automotive product liability.  For example, in Kane v. Ford Motor Co., 450 F.2d 315 (3d Cir. 1971), the plaintiff started out claiming one type of brake defect in a car, but then shifted to a different defect claim at trial.  The Third Circuit affirmed exclusion of such evidence, because it was “irrelevant to appellant’s theory of the case.”  Id. at 316.  See Fields v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 555 P.2d 48, 58 (Okla. 1976) (excluding recall where “the defect mentioned in the recall letter is not the defect claimed to have cause the [plaintiff’s injury]”); Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., 988 F.2d 573, 578-80 (5th Cir. 1993) (affirming exclusion of five other incidents that different car models and different claims of mechanical defect); Olson v. Ford Motor Co., 410 F. Supp. 2d 869, 873-75 (D.N.D. 2006) (excluding automotive recalls where the reason for recall differed from plaintiff’s alleged product defect); Jordan v. General Motors Corp., 624 F. Supp. 72, 77 (E.D. La. 1985) (same).

But we’re more interested in prescription medical product liability litigation.

In our sandbox, the New York Court of Appeals rejected failure to warn of risks the plaintiff had not suffered in Martin v. Hacker, 628 N.E.2d 1308 (N.Y. 1993), where the plaintiff claimed that a drug should have been contraindicated in patients with a history of depression – but personally had no history of depression.  “Since it is undisputed that [plaintiff] had no history of mental depression, we are not concerned with the adequacy of the Contraindications section of the insert.  Id. at 1313. See McFadden v. Haritatos, 448 N.Y.S.2d 79, 81 (N.Y.A.D. 1982) (“Since there was no showing” that plaintiff “had a history of that condition,” the allegedly inadequate warnings “are not applicable”).

Other state appellate courts agree.  A Texas appellate court in Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc. v. Meyer, 249 S.W.3d 513 (Tex. App. 2007), entered judgment n.o.v. on a warning claim, where the prescriber knew of the risk that the plaintiff encountered − rejecting allegations of inadequate warnings about diabetes (“[n]othing in the record suggests that [plaintiff] was diabetic”), and several general surgical risks (“[a]ssuming that the general . . . risk factors . . . could form the basis of an appropriate warning, there is no evidence that the lack of such a warning caused [plaintiff’s] injury”).  Id. at 519.

In King v. Danek Medical, Inc., 37 S.W.3d 429 (Tenn. App. 2000), one of Bexis’ Bone Screw cases, the plaintiffs’ expert attempted to opine about a condition that the plaintiffs did not have.  Same result:

[Plaintiffs’ expert] did not attempt to testify that either [plaintiff] developed [that condition] as the result of their implants. . . .  The theoretical possibility that some [products] of other manufacturers can cause various bone problems, without proof that it occurred to these plaintiffs because of the products of these defendants, cannot defeat summary judgment.

Id. at 446-47.

Likewise, in Peterson v. Parke Davis & Co., 705 P.2d 1001 (Colo. App. 1985), the court affirmed rejection of a proposed jury instruction that would have required the defendant to warn about every possible drug risk:

[T]he request for an instruction that [defendant] had a duty to warn of all known dangers was properly denied.  In a failure to warn case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the manufacturer gave inadequate warning of the danger which caused the injury.

Id. at 1004.

Here in Pennsylvania, plaintiffs tried warning claims about the risk of injuries they never suffered in both the breast implant and fen-phen mass torts – failing both times.  In fen-phen litigation, plaintiffs alleging primary pulmonary hypertension (“PPH”) were precluded from arguing that better warnings about valvular heart disease (“VHD”) (and vice versa) would have made a difference, even when a prescriber would not have been deterred by better warnings about the injury (PPH) the plaintiff actually had:

In these circumstances, the relationship between the legal wrong (the failure to disclose the risk of VHD) and the injury (PPH) is not directly correlative and is too remote for proximate causation.  Therefore, as a matter of law, there is no proximate, causal connection between [defendant’s] failure to disclose the risk of VHD and [plaintiff’s] specific injury.

Cochran v. Wyeth, Inc., 3 A.3d 673, 681 (Pa. Super. 2010); accord Owens v. Wyeth, 2009 WL 3244890, at ??? (C.P. Phila. Co. Aug. 17, 2009) (“the only warnings properly at issue in a failure to warn case are those relating to the condition to which the plaintiff alleges to have suffered”), aff’d mem., 6 A.3d 572 (table), 2010 WL 2965014, at *5-6 (Pa. Super. 2010) (adopting trial court’s reasoning).

Likewise, in breast implant litigation, the Pennsylvania mass tort court held that liability for inadequate warnings about risks not encountered was too broad to be permitted:

If I accept plaintiffs’ argument, the law will be permitting recovery for a risk that the plaintiff assumed because the plaintiff might have made a different decision as a result of knowing of other risks for which the plaintiff did not experience any harm.

In re Silicone Breast Implant Litigation, 64 D. & C. 4th 21, 25-26 (C.P. Allegheny Co. 2003).  Recovery for warnings about risks that never happened “would have a reach that extends far beyond the purposes for the [duty to warn] doctrine.”  Id. at 26.

The same has proven true with mass torts in other state courts.  In re NuvaRing Litigation, 2013 WL 1874321, at *23 (N.J. Super. Law Div. April 18, 2013) (“any failure to notify the FDA of increased [other] risks would not affect the adequacy of the warning with respect to the . . . cause of [plaintiff’s] death”); Hedrick v. Genentech Inc., 2011 WL 5902794, at ??? (Cal. Super. Oct. 20, 2011) (“liability should be limited when a plaintiff does not suffer the unwarned-of injury”) (applying Massachusetts law).

In federal court, the plaintiffs in Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, 283 F.3d 315, 321 (5th Cir. 2002) (applying Texas law), “never assert[ed] that they were part of a risk group that should have been warned.”  Id. at 321.  Their warning claims were therefore “absurd”:

To find causation, we would have to infer the absurd − for example, that an extra warning, though inapplicable to [the lead plaintiff], might have scared her and her doctor from [the drug].  Such reasoning is too speculative to establish Article III standing.

Id.

In Eck v. Parke, Davis & Co., 256 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 2001) (applying Oklahoma law), the plaintiff alleged that his prescriber “would have read and heeded a warning” about not to prescribe two drugs together.  Turns out that didn’t happen.  The other drug was prescribed later by somebody else.  The warning to the first prescriber had nothing to do with plaintiff’s eventual injury.  Therefore, no causation as a matter of law:

[I]t is undisputed that [plaintiff] did not ingest the [two drugs] concomitantly . . . until . . . his prescribing physician was [somebody else]. . . .  That [the first prescriber] might have heeded a warning. . .about possible adverse effects were he to prescribe [the two drugs together] is of no significance given the facts before us.

Id. at 1020.

In Mills v. United States, 764 F.2d 373 (5th Cir. 1985) (applying Louisiana law), the adverse reaction that the plaintiff suffered was the subject of thorough warnings – so plaintiff claimed that warnings about other conditions were inadequate.  The court held that, since, plaintiff didn’t have those injuries the alleged lack of warnings about them were irrelevant.

The question of the adequacy of the warnings must be confined to consideration of whether the warnings were sufficient to inform the plaintiff of the risk of the particular condition or disease which allegedly caused his injury or death. . . .  [A] determination that warnings were inadequate with respect to some other condition does not bear on our conclusion that [plaintiff] was adequately informed of the risk of severe allergic reaction to the swine flu vaccine.

Id. at 379.

Likewise, in Novak v. United States, 865 F.2d 718 (6th Cir. 1989) (applying Ohio law), the plaintiff lacked any scientific evidence that the product could cause her condition, and therefore claimed inadequate warnings about a different risk she never suffered.  Amazingly, the district court allowed the switch.  The court of appeals did not, and reversed:

There was, therefore, no reason for the defendant to make the references deemed important or vital by the district court, and there was no duty on the part of the defendant to warn about any of these conditions.  Particularly, the district court erred in finding the warning inadequate, negligent, and insufficient because it did not specifically caution those who may have experienced [the other condition].  It was not proven that [plaintiff] had actually suffered from [that condition]. . . .

Id. at 726.  See In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices & Products Liability Litigation, 639 Fed. Appx. 874, 879 n.8 (3d Cir. 2016) (expert opinion had “no impact” on causation when based on a study that “dealt with a population of which [plaintiff] was not a part”) (applying Pennsylvania law); Coursen v. A.H. Robins Co., 764 F.2d 1329, 1336 (9th Cir. 1985) (“collateral misconduct unrelated to the specific injury suffered by the plaintiffs” properly excluded) (applying Oregon law).

Numerous other cases have reached the same conclusion. In Stahl v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 2000 WL 33915848 (E.D. La. Nov. 29, 2000), aff’d, 283 F.3d. 254 (5th Cir. 2002), the plaintiff’s prescriber knew all about the drug’s alleged risks that he suffered.  Id. at *4.  Thus, plaintiff alleged inadequate warnings about other more serious conditions that he didn’t have.  Summary judgment granted:

[T]his Court is unpersuaded by [plaintiff’s] complaints that the warnings did not warn of death, liver failure, and the need for transplant.  [Plaintiff] has not suffered any of those injuries and is, therefore, precluded from imposing a duty to warn regarding those injuries not suffered. . . .  [A] claimant cannot seek to impose a duty to warn on a manufacturer of damage not sustained.

Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).  See also Vakil v. Merck & Co., 2016 WL 7175638, at *6 (D.N.J. Dec. 7, 2016) (“Defendants cannot be held accountable for failing to warn Plaintiff of a symptom he never experienced”); Guidry v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2016 WL 633673, at *4 (E.D. La. Feb. 17, 2016) (“The only specific . . . that supports the plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claim is that the FDA issued a safety announcement warning [about] ketoacidosis. But the plaintiff does not allege (at least coherently) that she ever suffered from ketoacidosis”; warning claim dismissed); Stephens v. Teva Pharmaceuticals, U.S.A., Inc., 2013 WL 12149265, at *3 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 31, 2013) (“warnings for a wide range of conditions from which decedent did not allegedly suffer . . . would not have had any effect on him”; motion to dismiss granted); Austin v. Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corp., 2013 WL 5406589, at *7 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 25, 2013) (“Plaintiff failed to state a claim for the failure to warn of side effects which Plaintiff did not suffer”); Harris v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2012 WL 6732725, at *3 (N.D. Ohio Dec. 28, 2012) (“For a plaintiff to succeed on an inadequate warning claim, the risk about which the manufacturer allegedly failed to warn must be the same risk which harmed the plaintiff.”) (following Ohio Rev. Code §2307.76(A)(1)); Tolliver v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2012 WL 3074538, at *4 (N.D. Ohio July 30, 2012) (same); Mason v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 2010 WL 2697173, at *5 n.3 (C.D. Ill. July 7, 2010) (“a warning is only inadequate if it fails to list risks or side effects that do occur”); Harrington v. Biomet, Inc., 2008 WL 2329132, at *6 (W.D. Okla. June 3, 2008) (“no evidence” that two allegedly inadequate warnings caused plaintiff’s alleged injuries; summary judgment granted); Hernandez v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 200 F.R.D. 285, 295 (S.D. Tex. 2001) (dismissing plaintiffs who “do not plead that the[ir] children suffered any injuries or side effects of which [defendant] allegedly failed to warn”) (applying Texas law).

We’ve observed many times that multi-district litigation all too often becomes a breeding ground for bogus claims, and warning claims asserting injuries that plaintiffs don’t actually have is no exception.  Plaintiffs in Pelvic Mesh litigation have repeatedly advanced similar bogus warning claims based on risks they had not encountered, and lost each time.  The MDL judge granted an in limine motion against such evidence in Tyree v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2014 WL 5445769 (S.D.W. Va. Oct. 22, 2014):

I agree that evidence of complications that no plaintiff experienced is irrelevant and lacking in probative value. For the claims that require evidence of injury (strict liability for failure to warn, strict liability for design defect, and negligence), only the injuries experienced by the complainant are relevant.  Strict liability . . . requires the plaintiff to show . . . that the defect was the probable cause of her injuries. . . .  [E]vidence that the [the product] causes injuries not experienced by the plaintiffs has little probative value.  Moreover, elaborating on injuries that the plaintiffs did not incur risks needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Id. at *6 (citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis original).  Accord Hall v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2015 WL 856786, at *5 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 27, 2015) (“Evidence of complications that the plaintiff has not experienced is irrelevant and lacking in probative value.  For the claims that require evidence of injury, only the injuries experienced by the complainant are relevant.”) (applying Wisconsin law); Eghnayem v. Boston Scientific Corp., 2014 WL 5465741, at *7 (W.D. Va. Oct. 28, 2014) (same) (applying Florida law); In re Ethicon Pelvic Repair Systems Products Liability Litigation, 2014 WL 505234, at *10 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 5, 2014) (excluding purported cancer risk where plaintiff “does not have cancer or allege any injuries related to an increased risk of cancer”) (applying Texas law); In re Ethicon Pelvic Repair Systems Products Liability Litigation, 2014 WL 457544, at *2 (S.D.W. Va. Feb. 3, 2014) (“secondary infections were not ‘a fact in issue’ because [plaintiff] did not experience a secondary infection”) (applying Texas law).

Other MDL cases reaching the same result include:

In re Xarelto (Rivaroxaban) Products Liability Litigation, 2017 WL 1352860, at *4, 7 (E.D. La. April 13, 2017) (excluding expert testimony about cancer where “cancer was not an issue for either Plaintiff”) (defense testimony); Solomon v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 916 F. Supp.2d 556, 564 (D.N.J. 2013) (“Plaintiff, however, did not suffer from transient ischemic stroke.  Thus, this study is irrelevant to Plaintiff’s claim”) (applying Texas law); Carr-Davis v. Bristol Myers-Squibb Co., 2013 WL 322616, at *5 (D.N.J. Jan. 28, 2013) (“because the studies are not relevant to Decedent’s condition, then the failure to inform the physicians of such findings cannot establish causation”) (applying Missouri law); Cooper v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2013 WL 85291, at *6 n.11 (D.N.J. Jan. 7, 2013) (plaintiff “does not link those potential warnings to his personal circumstances”) (applying Alabama law); Thrope v. Davol, Inc., 2011 WL 470613, at *32 (D.R.I. Feb. 4, 2011) (“[n]othing in [the surgeon’s] account indicates that he handled the [product] in a manner that [defendant] failed to warn against”; judgment as a matter of law granted) (applying North Carolina law); In re Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, 2010 WL 1257299, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. March 26, 2010) (“Plaintiff cannot establish proximate cause without evidence [of a] failure to warn of the specific risk that allegedly materialized”) (applying Florida law); In re Rezulin Products Liability Litigation, 331 F. Supp.2d 196, 200-01 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (alleged inadequate warning about risk plaintiff did not suffer held “quite beside the point”; “95 percent of the patients who took [the drug] suffered no liver injury” so “there is no evidence from which a trier of fact reasonably could conclude that these plaintiffs’ treating physicians would not have prescribed Rezulin even if plaintiffs are right as to the warning concerning liver toxicity”); In re Rezulin Products Liability Litigation, 2004 WL 1802960, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2004) (“these plaintiffs do not claim to have suffered any liver injury” so “that there may have been a breach of the duty to warn of liver toxicity for which patients suffering from liver dysfunction may recover does not avail these plaintiffs”) (footnotes omitted), vacated in part on other grounds, 2004 WL 2009445 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 8, 2004) (applying Mississippi and Texas law); Greiner v. Medical Engineering Corp., 99 F. Supp.2d 759 (W.D. La. 2000) (breast implants; “[a] claimant cannot seek to impose a duty to warn on a manufacturer of damage not sustained”), aff’d, 243 F.3d 200 (5th Cir. 2001); In re Norplant Contraceptive Products Liability Litigation, 1997 WL 81094, at *1 (E.D. Tex. Feb. 21, 1997) (“whether the [product] warnings were not adequate with respect to an injury not alleged is not relevant to whether physicians were adequately warned of Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries”).

Punitive Damages

Finally, one other argument that plaintiffs sometime advance about alleged failures to warn of risks that they didn’t actually encounter is that such non-causal failures to warn are relevant to “punitive damages.”

We don’t think so, and this time the argument is constitutionally based. Evidence of inadequate warnings about risks not encountered by plaintiffs is solely relevant to injuries suffered (if at all) by persons other than the plaintiff who is before the court.  That’s a punitive damages no-no.

In considering punitive damages, the United States Supreme Court first held:

A defendant’s dissimilar acts, independent from the acts upon which liability was premised, may not serve as the basis for punitive damages. . . .  Due process does not permit courts, in the calculation of punitive damages, to adjudicate the merits of other parties’ hypothetical claims against a defendant under the guise of the reprehensibility analysis.”

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 422-23 (2003).

A few years later, the Court decided that, “[t]o permit punishment for injuring a nonparty victim would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damages equation.”  Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 354 (2007).  Williams therefore flatly declared it unconstitutional to base punitive damages on allegations of harm to absent third parties (such as other people suffering different injuries):

We did not previously hold explicitly that a jury may not punish for the harm caused others. But we do so hold now. . . .  [W]e believe the Due Process Clause prohibits a State’s inflicting punishment for harm caused strangers to the litigation.

Id. at 357.  Thus, “it is particularly important that States avoid procedure that unnecessarily deprives juries of proper legal guidance.  Id. at 355.  It is “constitutionally important” to insure that “the jury will ask the right question, not the wrong one.”  Id.

[W]here the risk of. . .misunderstanding is a significant one – because, for instance, of the sort of evidence that was introduced at trial or the kinds of argument the plaintiff made to the jury – a court, upon request, must protect against that risk.  Although the States have some flexibility. . ., federal constitutional law obligates them to provide some form of protection in appropriate cases.

Id. at 357 (emphasis added).

Admission of warning/risk evidence beyond that involving the plaintiff in question constitutes a state-law “procedure” doing the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court required in Williams.  With respect to punitive damages, such evidence is inherently suspect because by definition it places before the jury “injury . . . inflict[ed] upon those who are, essentially, strangers to the litigation.”  Id. at 353.

In Skibniewski v. American Home Products Corp., 2004 WL 5628157 (W.D. Mo. April 1, 2004), after State Farm, but before Williams, the court excluded evidence of “any alleged side effect or risk of the products at tissue other than the side effect or risks that allegedly harmed plaintiff” both generally, and in response to a punitive damages argument.  Id. at *12-13.

[F]ailure to warn of a medical condition plaintiff does not have cannot serve as the basis of a failure to warn claim and . . . evidence regarding injuries plaintiff does not have is irrelevant.  Because plaintiff does not have [certain conditions], evidence of these should be excluded.

Id. at *7. See Ray v. Allergan, Inc., 863 F. Supp.2d 552, 565 (E.D. Va. 2012) (punitive damages argument based on all persons taking a drug for a condition, regardless of injury, required new trial under Williams); Schilf v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2010 WL 3909909, at *6 (D.S.D. Sept. 30, 2010) (evidence about a different drug “are irrelevant to Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages” under Williams); In re Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, 647 F. Supp.2d 265, 284-85 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (conduct occurring after a plaintiff’s injury cannot be used to support punitive damages under Williams); In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation, 2007 WL 4189510, at *3 (Mag. E.D. Ark. Nov. 15, 2007), adopted, 2007 WL 4189497 (E.D. Ark. Nov. 21, 2007) (under Williams evidence “will not be permitted to testify regarding [defendant’s] general badness or badness in the specific areas which are not connected to [plaintiff’s] injury”). See also Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 701 S.E.2d 5, 24 (S.C. 2010) (punitive damages theory that “invited the jury to punish [defendant] for all [product-related] deaths and injuries, rather than the “harm to [plaintiff],” was improper under Williams); Pedroza v. Lomas Auto Mall, Inc., 2009 WL 1300944, at *4-5 (D.N.M. April 2, 2009) (conduct occurring after a plaintiff’s injury cannot be used to support punitive damages under Williams) (non-product liability case); Berardi v. Village of Sauget, 2008 WL 2782925, at *5-6 (S.D. Ill. July 17, 2008) (other allegedly similar incidents could not be admitted to prove punitive damages) (non-product liability case).

So there you have it.  Evidence of alleged product defects, that did not give rise to the harm that the plaintiff actually encountered, should be irrelevant and inadmissible in product liability litigation, no matter what the rationale offered for their admissions.  Such evidence is a smoke screen and a side show offered when a plaintiff is trying to distract attention from a lousy liability case.

We have blogged before about the Mirena IUD litigation. Cases alleging injuries from device migration and uterine perforation were centralized in an MDL in the Southern District of New York, but, as we reported here, summary judgment was granted for the defendants in all of those cases when Daubert motions disposed of the plaintiffs’ causation experts.  There is another group of Mirena plaintiffs, this time alleging that Mirena caused them to develop idiopathic intracranial hypertension (“IIH”), a serious brain disorder marked by increased pressure in the brain and central nervous system.

Exactly one published study has ever linked Mirena to IIH. The lead author was Mahyar Etminan, Pharm. D. – much more about him in a minute.  You can read the Etminan article here. The Etminan article reported the results of two analyses:  an epidemiological study and an analysis of adverse events reported in the FAERs database.  The epidemiological study – that is to say, the unbiased statistics – did not demonstrate an increased risk of IIH associated with Mirena use when compared to combined oral contraceptives.  But the article reported that the FAERs analysis demonstrated a higher-than-expected proportion of IIH reports with Mirena as compared to all other products in the FAERS database.  (We’ve devoted an entire post (and cheat sheet) to why adverse event reporting doesn’t, and can’t, demonstrate causation.)

The Etminan article was published in 2015 and included a standard “no conflict of interest” statement. In the ensuing months, Mirena IIH plaintiffs in a half-dozen district courts disclosed their experts.  Among them was none other than Mahyar Etminan, who, it turns out, had been on plaintiffs’ payroll all along in a blatant conflict of interest not disclosed in his article.  Etminan, along with three other causation experts, cherry-picked the results of the FAERs analysis to allege a causal relationship between Mirena and IIH but never dealt with the conflicting epidemiological data from the same article.

And it gets even better.   In December 2016, Etminan executed an affidavit, which you can see here.  In it, Etminan explained that the methodology of the FAERs analysis was flawed and did not support its conclusion.  Specifically, in comparing the proportion of IIH reports among Mirena users with the proportion among non-users in his FAERs analysis, Etminan failed to limit the comparator groups to women of reproductive age.  Because women of reproductive age have a higher background incidence of IIH than other age groups, failing to limit the comparator groups to these women introduced a bias against the Mirena group.  When the analysis was re-done with the correct comparator groups, the affidavit explains, the results did not support a claim that Mirena increases the risk of IIH.

And so Etminan, the source of the only published study claiming that Mirena causes IIH, publicly renounced his published conclusions. (Earlier, when the flaws in the FAERs analysis came to light, Etminan withdrew from the seven cases in which he’d been named as an expert.)  We don’t know that we have ever seen anything like this in all of our days litigating mass torts.  And we love watching the collapse of a house of cards erected on a foundation of paid (and undisclosed) advocacy.

But the story isn’t over yet. None of plaintiffs’ other causation experts – all of whom also relied on Etminan’s published FAERs analysis – has yet withdrawn.  And, just days ago, IIH cases were centralized in an MDL in the Southern District of New York.  (Plaintiffs had sought such an MDL in 2014, but the JPML rejected that request.)  Regular blog readers are familiar with our views of many MDL plaintiffs and their lawyers, spawned during countless hours fighting hordes of meritless claims that MDL judges allow to remain pending.  By rights, with no evidence of causation, plaintiffs should be out of court.  And, certainly, some threshold determination of merit should precede the formation of an MDL.  But mass torts exist for the masses, who queue up for settlement handouts that don’t depend on meritorious claims.  Can the new IIH MDL proceed very far down the litigation path when the plaintiffs’ causation claim has been debunked by its primary supporter?  Back in November, we learned never to say never.  So stay tuned.