Here’s the crux of today’s case, In re Trader Joe’s Tuna Litig., 2017 WL 2408117, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Jun. 2, 2017):

Plaintiffs determined that the Trader Joe’s tuna cans were underfilled and underweight by commissioning testing with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) on December 1, 2015. NOAA tested several varieties of Trader Joe’s tuna according to the FDA’s standards for canned tuna, pursuant to 21 C.F.R. § 161.190. This statute determines the standard fill of tuna within a container based on its pressed cake weight.

Even though there’s more, we cut this block quote short because we saw the word “cake.” It’s distracting. Cake has always distracted us. It’s a minor miracle that it didn’t cause us to simply insert a post-ending ellipsis and begin a blurry daydream about cake, like a daydreaming scene in a movie. The only thing that stopped us was that the block quote also said “tuna.” We like tuna just fine. But tuna cake? That’s not so enticing.

Unless—apparently—you’re a class action plaintiffs’ lawyer. Ever in search of financial damages and the type of factual and legal sameness that leads to class certification, pressed cakes of tuna had the plaintiffs’ lawyers daydreaming. They dreamed of financial damages for underweighted tuna cans and the necessary sameness created by an FDA regulation that set the standard for weighing them. And so they gathered putative class representatives and filed claims ranging from breach of implied warranty of merchantability, unjust enrichment and fraud to violations of New York General Business Law §§ 349, 350 and violations of the ever-present California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Unfair Competition Law, and False Advertising Law. Id.

And, while many of these claims are not typical in product liability litigation, they certainly do implicate defenses that are. The claims are—explicitly—premised on alleged violations of FDA regulations. And that allowed defendants to bring a motion to dismiss asserting a number of very familiar defenses, including implied preemption, conflict preemption, and primary jurisdiction. Id. at *2. For instance, primary jurisdiction was in play because, according to defendants (id. at *1), the FDA was actively considering revising its weight regulation that relied on pressed cake. . . . . . .

. . . Yum, there it is again. Cake. We’re imagining it as chocolate cake—with chocolate icing. Better yet, chocolate ganache. That’s probably the same as chocolate icing, but it sounds so much tastier. And no “erries”—that means, no blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, or anything like them. They get in the way of the chocolate without being nearly as good. It’s fine to include vanilla, preferably as ice cream. But that’s it. No other additions. That is, unless we make it a chocolate soufflé—or bread pudding. Or how about a three-course meal of chocolate cake, soufflé and bread pudding . . . . .

Oh, sorry. Back to the law. . . . . .

It wasn’t primary jurisdiction that won dismissal. It was implied preemption under Buckman. A reminder on the standard:

The plaintiff must be suing for conduct that violates the FDCA (or else his claim is expressly preempted by § 360k(a)), but the plaintiff must not be suing because the conduct violates the FDCA (such a claim would be impliedly preempted under Buckman). Perez v. Nidek Co., 711 F.3d 1109, 1120 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting In re Medtronic, 623 F.3d 1200, 1204 (8th Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original)). Thus, “under principles of implied preemption … private litigants may not bring a state-law claim against a defendant when the state-law claim is in substance (even if not in form) a claim for violating the FDCA.” Loreto v. Procter & Gamble Co., 515 F. App’x 576, 579 (6th Cir. 2013)

Id. at *2.

And there simply was no way for the plaintiffs to get around the fact that they were absolutely suing “because” the underweighting of the tuna cases allegedly violated the FDA regulated testing standard. And so the court dismissed the claims:

In sum, Plaintiffs’ claims would not exist without the FDCA. Plaintiffs allege that Trader Joe’s misrepresented that its cans contained an adequate amount of tuna . . . . Plaintiffs also maintain that the reason the amount in the tuna cans was inadequate is because it failed to meet the pressed cake weight standard under 21 C.F.R. § 161.190. Consequently, the theory underlying Plaintiffs’ state-law claims depends entirely on an FDA regulation. Plaintiffs’ state law claims are in reality claimed violations of an FDA regulation, and therefore, the FDCA prohibits Plaintiffs from bringing them. On this basis, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.

Id. at *4.

Piece of cake.

Put a New Yorker and a Californian in a room together and the debate will begin almost immediately. Hollywood v. Broadway. Atlantic v. Pacific. Dodgers v. Yankees or Giants v. Forty-Niners. Shake Shack v. In-N-Out (or is Five Guys overtaking both?). And more generally speaking that east coast/west coast divide extends beyond those two urban hubs. Laid back v. fast-paced lifestyle. Deserts v. low country. Golden Gate v. Sunshine Skyway. Disneyland v. Disney World. And let’s not forget – the west coast may be synonymous with California sunshine, but the east coast gives you actual seasons.

While failure to report adverse event claims are not limited to the west coast, we think of them as Stengel claims. In case you need reminding, we believe that the Ninth Circuit made a historic error in Stengel v. Medtronic Inc., 704 F.3d 1224 (9th Cir., 2013) (en banc), when it equated routine product liability inadequate warning claims with indirect third-party warning claims where the third party is a governmental agency – that is, the FDA. Since Stengel is a Ninth Circuit case and the Ninth Circuit includes the entire west coast – we’re going to saddle the west coast with that one. And we’re going to praise an east coast court for saying, thanks but no thanks.

We’ve talked about Burrell v. Bayer Corporation before when earlier this year the court ruled that allegations of parallel claims in plaintiff’s complaint conferred federal question jurisdiction. After winning on removal, the defendants next moved to dismiss the entire case on preemption. Round 2 goes to defendants as well.

The product at issue is the Essure birth control medical device. It is a pre-market approved device so preemption shouldn’t be a big surprise. Burrell v. Bayer Corp., 2017 WL 1955333, *1 (W.D.N.C. May 10, 2017). As is true of the vast majority of drug and medical device products cases, failure to warn is at the heart of the case. But as we already know, traditional failure to warn claims are preempted in PMA device cases. So, plaintiffs pushed for a Stengel-claim. Plaintiff’s argument is failure to warn premised on failure to provide adverse event reports to the FDA is a non-preempted parallel claim. Unpersuaded by the reasoning of that west coast court, Burrell found that the requirement to report adverse events exists under the FDCA rather than state law and therefore, plaintiff’s failure to warn claim is “being brought because the [] defendants allegedly failed to meet these reporting requirements.” Burrell, at *5 (emphasis added). And where a claim is being brought solely based on a violation of the FDCA – that’s Buckman implied preemption. Traditional failure to warn is expressly preempted, failure to report to the FDA is impliedly preempted. Score one for the east coast for getting this.

But the court didn’t stop there. Analyzing the claim under state law, it still didn’t hold up because plaintiff’s allegations didn’t support a finding of causation. This is where most Stengel claims. By the time the device was implanted in plaintiff, the FDA had received and analyzed the adverse event reports and the subsequent warning did not contain any new information. Id. at *5 (although a black box warning was required, that was a new “type” of warning, the substance of the warning was unchanged). So there was no causal nexus between the alleged failure to report and plaintiff’s injury.

None of plaintiff’s remaining claims fared any better. On failure to train, the claim only survives preemption if premised on allegations that defendant failed to train in accordance with federal requirements. Plaintiff made no such allegations. Id. at *6. Moreover, plaintiff again failed to allege any facts to support a causal connection between the failure to train and her injury. Id. Plaintiff’s negligent manufacturing claim suffered the same fate – no alleged violation of federal requirements and no facts to support causation. Id. Plaintiff’s design defect claim was dismissed as expressly preempted. As a PMA device, the “FDA made its determination of this products safety and effectiveness for its given use. As the plaintiff cannot allege that [defendant] departed from its FDA-approved design of this product, these design defect claims are preempted.” Id. at *7. Even if not preempted, North Carolina does not recognize strict liability claims for products liability. Id.

            Moving on to warranty claims, plaintiff alleged that defendant expressly warranted the product was safe. To find that defendant breached that warranty, a jury would have to conclude that the product was unsafe – which is contrary to the FDA’s conclusion in its pre-market approval that the device was in fact safe and effective. So, express warranty is expressly preempted. Id. Since plaintiff’s implied warranty claim also turned on whether the product was reasonably safe, it too was expressly preempted. “The FDA, under the FDCA and the MDA, has the express authority to make such determinations as to the safety and effectiveness of Class III medical devices.” Id.

Plaintiff’s final claims against the manufacturer were for fraud and unfair trade practices. The court first noted that most of the allegations on these claims were just a re-packaging of the allegations pleaded with plaintiff’s other claims. Since the allege misrepresentations were largely “indistinguishable from FDA-approved labeling statements” – they too were preempted. Id. at *8.

Nice job North Carolina. In the east coast v. west coast debate, we’ll side with an anti-Stengel jurisdiction every time.

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

A federal judge in Texas recently ruled that Texas law does not allow a claim for negligence per se based solely on alleged violations of the FDCA or FDA regulations. Monk v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72477, *21-23 (W.D. Tex May 11, 2017). That seems pretty straightforward to us. Plaintiffs typically use negligence per se to try to privately enforce a provision of the FDCA, i.e., by using an alleged violation of a safety-related provision of the FDCA as the basis for their state law claim.  State law does not always allow this, but even when it does, such a claim should not withstand implied preemption under Buckman.  That is because Buckman and section 337(a) of the FDCA make it clear that litigants cannot privately enforce the FDCA, and a negligence per se claim based on a purported violation of the FDCA is an unveiled attempt to accomplish exactly that. Monk doesn’t say all of that explicitly, but it relies on cases that do. That’s good enough for us.

Plaintiff based her negligence per se claim on the defendants’ alleged failure to provide medication guides for distribution with amiodarone prescriptions.  The basis for the claim was the federal regulation requiring manufacturers of some prescription drugs to make medication guides available either by providing a sufficient number of guides to distributors and dispensers or by providing the means to produce guides in sufficient numbers. Id. at *3, *6 (citing 21 C.F.R. § 208.24(b)).

And this is where things get confusing, because while the court dismissed plaintiff’s negligence per se claim based on violation of this regulation, the court reached the opposite conclusion regarding plaintiff’s negligent failure to warn claim based on exactly the same thing.  A state law failure-to-warn claim based on a violation of federal prescription drug regulations? Sounds like implied preemption to us, but the court concluded that this very federal-sounding claim was actually a parallel state law failure to warn claim. But wait. Isn’t plaintiff suing because the defendant allegedly violated the FDCA.  That’s Buckman implied preemption. As many courts have noted, plaintiffs seeking to avoid preemption have to weave their way through a “narrow gap” by alleging they are suing for conduct that violated the FDCA, but not because the conduct violated the FDCA. But the only allegation here is that defendants did not provide the medication guides as required by federal regulations.

The court’s reasoning is based entirely on dicta in the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Eckhardt v. Qualitest Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 751 F.3d 674, 679 (5th Cir. 2014) that “failing to provide FDA-approved warnings would be a violation of both state and federal law, this is a parallel claim that is not preempted.” Id. But the claim that defendants provided no warnings was not alleged in the complaint and so was not allowed by the court. There is no information in Eckhardt regarding the basis for plaintiff’s claim that defendant failed to provide any warnings and so it is unknown if it was “because” defendant’s violated a federal regulation.

In Monk, the court knew precisely the basis for plaintiff’s failure to warn claim – 21 C.F.R. § 208.24(b); the same basis as plaintiff’s negligence per se claim. That the result is different on both claims is really difficult to reconcile. So we won’t try. We’ll instead reiterate – no negligence per se based on FDCA in Texas.

 

Late last year we happily blogged about Utts v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2016 WL 7429449 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2016), chiefly because it held that design defect claims against a branded prescription drug (Eliquis) were preempted under the impossibility preemption reasoning in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011), and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013).  However, as we noted in that post, dismissal of the non-design aspects of complaint was with “leave to amend.” See also Utts, 2016 WL 7429449, at *1.

Of course, plaintiffs amended.

Now, they probably wish they hadn’t.

In a second opinion, issued earlier this month, the Utts litigation was dismissed a second time, this time with prejudice. Utts v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1906875 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2017) (“Utts II”).  Preemption was once again front and center, but this time an excellent preemption result was accompanied by a variety of equally pleasing common-law – California law – rulings.

Impossibility Preemption

First, preemption. Design defect claims had already been preempted under Mensing/Bartlett, as plaintiffs were reminded whenever they crossed the line into design-type claims. Id. at *1, 9, 10 n.10, 13 n.15, 16, 19.  But the major preemption issue this time around involved warnings – and whether any of the information that plaintiffs claimed required some kind of “better” warnings involved “newly acquired information” of the sort that a defendant could unilaterally add given the scope of the FDA’s “changes being effected” exception to preemption recognized in Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009). See 21 C.F.R. §314.3(b) (known as the “CBE” regulation for drugs – note, there are similar CBE regulations for devices and biologics; we’ve discussed the device regulation here).

For a more detailed discussion of the “newly acquired information” aspect of preemption, see our post here about In re Celexa & Lexapro Marketing & Sales Practices Litigation, 779 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2015), which was the first appellate decision finding preemption where plaintiffs failed to come forward with any “new” information to support their warning claims. Utts II explained that, in the preemption context, “if the plaintiff can point to the existence of ‘newly acquired information’ to support a labeling change under the CBE regulation, the burden then shifts to the manufacturer to show by ‘clear evidence’ that the FDA would not have approved the labeling change made on the basis of this newly acquired information.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *9.

Plaintiffs threw a lot of mud at the drug and its manufacturer, but nothing they heaved against the wall stuck – everything plaintiffs cited all old information that did not go beyond what the FDA had before it when it approved the drug in the first place.

Why is that?

Basically, Eliquis is a next-generation anticoagulant, very effective at what it does, and not requiring the kind of dietary restrictions and constant blood testing that older blood thinners such as warfarin – originally sold as rat poison – do.  Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *2 & n.4.  Unfortunately, the plaintiffs’ bar has decided that anybody needing anticoagulation therapy should be should only have such older drugs available, and has launched an ongoing litigation assault at practically every next generation anticoagulant (others include Xarelto and Pradaxa) – because of risks of serious and sometimes fatal bleeding inherent in what these drugs are supposed to do.

The FDA was well aware of the risks that Eliquis, like any other anticoagulant, could cause uncontrollable bleeding when it approved it. Indeed, the “label warns about the risk of serious bleeding no less than five times.” Id. at *3.  It “specifically warns about the risk of bleeding” during concomitant therapy “in conjunction with antiplatelet agents, such as aspirin.”  Id. at *4.  The labeling also “twice warns about the fact that there is no specific antidote” should serious bleeding occur.  Id.

That’s why plaintiffs lost in Utts II.

Basically, the well-known fact that anticoagulants carry with them serious bleeding risks is why none of the information that the plaintiffs in Utts II brought forward qualified as “new.”  “New” is defined in the FDA’s CBE regulation as “studies, events, or analyses [that] reveal risks of a different type or greater severity or frequency than previously included in submissions to FDA.  21 C.F.R. §314.3(b) (quoted at 2017 WL 1906875, at *8).  In the preemption context, “

  • “The table and the description from the ISMP report do not suggest − nor do the plaintiffs allege − that the real-world signal data for [the drug] shows a greater severity or frequency of bleeding events or deaths than previously disclosed in [defendant’s] submissions to the FDA. Accordingly, the information contained in this table does not constitute newly acquired information. Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *13.
  • Plaintiffs argue “that the guidance regarding concomitant use of antiplatelet agents is inadequate because the label does not advise how or when to use combination therapy . . . or how commonly bleeding events will occur. This omission . . . was evident to the FDA when it approved the label and the plaintiffs have not identified any newly acquired information.” Id. (quotation marks and footnote omitted).
  • This observation does not constitute newly acquired information, as it simply speculates whether [drug] safety could be further improved. Id. at *14 (as to “improved dosage guidance”).
  • [E]mbolic-thrombotic events are . . . not bleeding events. Nor do the plaintiffs argue that any of this data comparing the incidence of embolic-thrombotic events . . . constitutes newly acquired information. Id. (footnote omitted).
  • [T]he findings directed towards the risk of ischemic stroke for [the drug] users do not constitute newly acquired information. Id. at *15.
  • [P]laintiffs do not allege, however, that this expert guidance contains, or is founded upon, any newly acquired information regarding reversal agents or the treatment of excessive bleeding.” Id.
  • “[P]laintiffs do not allege that this statement contains newly acquired information about what constitutes a safe residual drug level.” Id. at *16.
  • “[T]his article does not refer to any new information that would have permitted the defendants to amend the [drug’s] label. And, in their opposition to this motion, the plaintiffs do not argue that it does.” Id.
  • “[P]laintiffs do not contend that any of the five remaining documents . . . contains newly acquired information regarding an undisclosed risk of bleeding. Several of these articles merely express a desire for further investigation. Id.

Thus, although plaintiffs loaded up their amended complaint with no fewer than “34 warnings that the defendants allegedly failed to provide,” 2017 WL 1906875, at *11, there was no safety in numbers. None of their supposedly missing warnings was based on “newly acquired information” as defined and required by the FDA’s CBE regulation.

Because, plaintiffs could not point to any “newly acquired information” to support their warning-related allegations, those allegations fell outside the scope of the Levine CBE exception and were preempted, because under Mensing/Bartlett such warnings could not be added without prior FDA approval.  2017 WL 1906875, at *9.

Next, in accordance with practically all law, Utts II held that preemption could be decided on a motion to dismiss.  A “determination regarding preemption is a conclusion of law.” Id. at *19 (pointing out that Mensing had been decided on a motion to dismiss).  To the extent that the Third Circuit’s aberrant Fosamax decision was pertinent, it was distinguishable.  Fosamax was limited to “clear evidence” determinations, and in Utts II, because plaintiffs offered no “new” information, clear evidence was never at issue.  Id. at *19-20.  Finally, plaintiffs were “not entitled to discovery on preempted claims.”  Id. at *20 (discussing TwIqbal).

In a way, the new evidence requirement discussed in Utts II resembles the so called “public disclosure” requirement that is a defense to False Claims Act claims (see here for more discussion), except that the “newness” of the information in preemption of state-law warning claims is measured against the evidence presented to the FDA, as opposed to the public.

Buckman Preemption

Utts II also found fraud-on-the-FDA preemption under Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).  Plaintiffs ran from their blatant fraud-on-the-FDA allegations, asking that they “be read merely as evidentiary background.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *26.  The court read them as they were written (and no doubt intended), and found preemption:

Each of the statements on which the fraud claim is premised depends on statements made to and approved by the FDA. There is no newly acquired information that required or suggested that the allegedly fraudulent statements should be altered to remain truthful and non-fraudulent.  Accordingly, the fraud claims are preempted.

Id.

Other FDCA-Related Issues

On other FDCA-related issues, Utts II ends up on our Adverse Drug/Device Event cheat sheet because of its discussion of how voluntarily reported adverse events aren’t legitimate proof of causation:

Federal regulations advise that a report submitted by a manufacturer “does not necessarily reflect a conclusion by the [manufacturer] or FDA that the report or information constitutes an admission that the drug caused or contributed to an adverse effect.” 21 C.F.R. § 314.80(l).  As the FDA Website explains:

FDA does not require that a causal relationship between a product and event be proven, and reports do not always contain enough detail to properly evaluate an event. Further, FDA does not receive reports for every adverse event or medication error that occurs with a product. Many factors can influence whether or not an event will be reported, such as the time a product has been marketed and publicity about an event.

The Supreme Court has similarly warned that “[t]he fact that a user of a drug has suffered an adverse event, standing alone, does not mean that the drug caused that event.” Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27, 44 (2011). I n sum, “the mere existence of reports of adverse events . . . says nothing in and of itself about whether the drug is causing the adverse events.” Id.

Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *12.

In addition, Utts II contains an excellent discussion of the harmful effects of overwarning.  The need to prevent overwarning is the reason that the CBE regulation does not apply to all information, new or old, that could in some way “strengthen” existing warnings:

The FDA has recognized that “[e]xaggeration of risk, or inclusion of speculative or hypothetical risks, could discourage appropriate use of a beneficial drug . . . or decrease the usefulness and accessibility of important information by diluting or obscuring it.” Indeed, “labeling that includes theoretical hazards not well-grounded in scientific evidence can cause meaningful risk information to lose its significance.” For this reason, the CBE regulation requires that there be sufficient evidence of a causal association between the drug and the information sought to be added.

Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *8 (all quotes from “Supplemental Applications Proposing Labeling Changes for Approved Drugs, Biologics, and Medical Devices,” 73 Fed. Reg. 2848 (FDA Jan. 16, 2008).

Another notable FDA-related aspect of Utts II has to do with so-called “comparative claims” – claims that one medication is better than another in some respect.  Plaintiffs often claim (as they did in Utts II) that there is some sort of duty to warn that ones product is less safe than its competition.  However, Utts II points out that the FDA does not permit such claims except when supported by specific types and amounts of scientific evidence.  “[A]ny claim comparing the drug to which the labeling applies with other drugs in terms of frequency, severity, or character of adverse reactions must be based on adequate and well-controlled studies.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *7 (citing 21 C.F.R. §201.57(c)(7)(iii)).  Further, “federal regulations do not require a manufacturer to include information about a competitor’s product or progress.” Id. at *16 (citing 21 C.F.R. §§201.56, 201.57, 201.80).

State-Law Warning Issues

Beyond its preemption and other FDCA-related aspects, Utts II has a load of other helpful holdings, mostly about California law.  The decision contains an excellent discussion of the state of the art defense.  2017 WL 1906875, at *10.  It also points out that, the California Supreme Court’s holding – quite apart from preemption – that as a matter of federal/state comity, warning liability does not exist as a matter of state law where the purported duty flies in the face of FDA regulation:

Even where a risk is “known” or “knowable” at the time of distribution, under California law, a manufacturer “may not be held liable for failing to give a warning it has been expressly precluded by the FDA from giving.” Thus, if the manufacturer disclosed to the FDA “state-of-the-art scientific data concerning the alleged risk” and the FDA determined, after its review, “that the pharmaceutical manufacturer was not permitted to warn − e.g., because the data was inconclusive or the risk was too speculative to justify a warning,” then the manufacturer could not be held strictly liable for failure to warn. “[T]he FDA’s conclusion that there was, in effect, no ‘known risk’ is controlling.”

2017 WL 1906875, at *11 (all quotations from Carlin v. Superior Court, 920 P.2d 1347 (Cal. 1996)).  Thus, the same grounds that support preemption as a matter of federal law – where, as here, the FDA says “no” – also preclude liability as a matter of state law.

In tandem with preemption, Utts II also holds that the defendant’s drug labeling was adequate as a matter of California law on the bleeding issues raised by plaintiffs – just as our prior post thought it should.  In general, the label “clearly discloses that there is a risk of excessive bleeding and that there is no known antidote if that occurs.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *21.  Nor could plaintiffs prevail with any of the usual nitpicking that goes on in this type of litigation.

  • Monitoring – “The label provides, in unambiguous terms, all of the scientifically reliable information that physicians may need to determine how to monitor their patients.” Id.
  • Bleeding Reversal – A “recommendation is to discontinue [the drug] and apply ‘standard supportive treatment and other local measures’ . . . does not supply a basis for a plausible claim that the label needed to add further guidance.” Id. at *22 (quoting medical article).
  • Dosage – Plaintiffs do “not identify any research or data that undermines or contradicts the dosing guidance” and “speculation about information that the defendants may possess is insufficient to plausibly plead a claim.” Id. (citing TwIqbal).

Similarlly, plaintiffs other warning-based claims failed due to the adequacy of the warning.  Id. at *24 (implied warranty), *26-27 (fraud); *29 (consumer fraud)

Finally, here are some other California warning-related nuggets we can use:  (1) Under the learned intermediary rule, “a manufacturer discharges its duty to warn if it provides adequate warnings to the physician about any known or reasonably knowable dangerous side effects, regardless of whether the warning reaches the patient.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *11. (2) “[P]harmaceutical manufacturer[s] may not be required to provide warning of a risk known to the medical community.” Id. (quoting Carlin).  (3) “[W]arnings relevant to any breach of warranty claim are those directed to the physician rather than the patient.” Id. at *22 (quoting Carlin) (emphasis original).  (4) The opinion notes that the learned intermediary rule applies to California consumer fraud claims.  Id. at *28 n.32.

Looking Forward

Utts II contains by far the most detailed discussion to date of the interplay between preemption and the “newly acquired evidence” requirement of the FDA’s CBE regulation.  It would be notable for that reason alone.  However, it also finds the labeling adequate as a matter of law, which is second highly significant ruling in any prescription medical product litigation.  What’s more, since the entire Utts amended complaint is now dismissed with prejudice, not only Utts II, but also the original Utts design defect preemption ruling, is now appealable.

Any appeal would be interesting.  Every ruling in Utts II is double-breasted, in that preemption is bolstered by independent state law grounds.  That is not the case with design defect preemption in the original Utts decision, where preemption is the sole basis for dismissal.  Utts, 2016 WL 7429449, at *12.  So, if plaintiffs were to appeal, their only clean shot at preemption would involve their design claim.  In any event, the preemption rulings in both Utts (Yates v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 808 F.3d 281 (6th Cir. 2015)), and Utts II (Celexa, 779 F.3d 34) are supported by court of appeals decisions, as our preemption cheat sheet demonstrates.  At best, in a hypothetical appeal, we would get an affirmance and reinforcing appellate precedent supporting preemption in innovator drug cases.  At worst, there would be a circuit split, which would offer the further (double-hypothetical) possibility of additional Supreme Court review of what Utts II called the Levine “trilogy.”  2017 WL 1906875, at *9.  While we always prefer to win, whenever, however, and as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, we certainly would find another shot at innovator drug preemption in the Supreme Court an interesting proposition.

As our post-Levine preemption cheat sheet demonstrates, Mensing/Bartlett preemption is breathing down the necks of all prescription drug design defect claims.  Recent cases finding preemption of design defect claims due to the need for FDA pre-approval of “major” or “moderate” design changes (basically, anything that could be causal in a product liability lawsuit) include:  Yates v. Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 808 F.3d 281, 298 (6th Cir. 2015); Young v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2017 WL 706320, at *5 (N.D. Miss. Feb. 22, 2017); Utts v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2016 WL 7429449, at *12 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2016); Brazil v. Janssen Research & Development LLC, 196 F. Supp.3d 1351, 1364 (N.D. Ga. 2016); Fleming v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 186 F. Supp.3d 826, 832-34 (W.D. Tenn. 2016); Batoh v. McNeil-PPC, Inc., 167 F. Supp.3d 296, 320-22 (D. Conn. 2016) (OTC drug); Barcal v. EMD Serono, Inc., 2016 WL 1086028, at *4 (N.D. Ala. March 21, 2016); Rheinfrank v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., 137 F. Supp.3d 1035, 1040-41 (S.D. Ohio 2015); Trahan v. Sandoz, Inc., No. 3:13-CV-350-J-34MCR, 2015 WL 2365502, at *6 (M.D. Fla. March 26, 2015).

We don’t expect the other side just to sit idly by and watch their design defect claims get washed away by a preemptive deluge, and they haven’t. To counter preemptive FDA-pre approval design requirements, they’ve conjured up the idea of a “pre-approval” design defect.

What the heck is that, you ask?  Well, since preemption depends on the regulatory requirement to get FDA approval for any design change that could affect product safety, these cockamamie claims try to change the time-line – targeting the design as it stood before the drug was submitted to the FDA in the first place.  Since way back when, the prospective NDA holder could have chosen to submit some different molecule to the FDA, plaintiffs claim that the failure to do that was a “design defect.”  That is, they contend the drug was defectively designed before it could ever legally be produced commercially.

Got it?

Thankfully, this “pre-approval” defect concept hasn’t done all that well, even as a matter of preemption. In Yates the Sixth Circuit, the first appellate court to pass on such a claim, accurately rejected it as another variant of a preempted claim that the defendant should never have sold its product.

In contending that defendants’ pre-approval duty would have resulted in a [product] with a different formulation, [plaintiff] essentially argues that defendants should never have sold the FDA-approved formulation of [their drug] in the first place.  We reject this never-start selling rationale for the same reasons the Supreme Court in Bartlett rejected the stop-selling rationale of the First Circuit.

808 F.3d at 300; accord Utts, 2016 WL 7429449, at *11; Brazil, 196 F. Supp.3d at 1364 (subjecting pre-approval design defect claims for preemption for similar reasons).

However, a few recent cases from Fifth Circuit turf have let pre-approval design defect claims escape preemption.  See In re Xarelto (Rivaroxaban) Products Liability Litigation, 2017 WL 1395312, at *3 (E.D. La. Apr. 13, 2017) (“Louisiana law imposes a duty on all manufacturers to consider feasible, alternative designs. . . .  Federal law does not prevent a drug manufacturer from complying with this state-imposed duty before seeking FDA approval.”) (following Guidry v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 206 F. Supp.3d 1187, 1206-97 (E.D. La. 2016)); see also Young v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 2017 WL 706320, at *8 (N.D. Miss. Feb. 22, 2017) (“there is no conflict between [plaintiff’s] pre-approval theory and the defendants’ federal law duties”) (also following Guidry).

We, of course, think Yates nailed it on preemption – any common-law claim, the result of which would be a jury finding that an FDA-approved product design should never have been sold, is a stop-selling claim barred by Mensing/Bartlett.  The FDA determines what products may be marketed, not individual juries misled by reptile-minded plaintiffs’ lawyers.

But this post isn’t about that – it is not another defense of preemption.  Another thing Yates had to say about pre-approval design defect claims was:

[Plaintiff’s] argument regarding defendants’ pre-approval duty is too attenuated.  To imagine such a pre-approval duty exists, we would have to speculate that had defendants designed [the drug] differently, the FDA would have approved the alternate design.  Next, we would have to assume that [plaintiff] would have selected this [hypothetical product].  Further yet, we would have to suppose that this alternate design would not have caused [plaintiff’s injuries].  This is several steps too far.  Even if New York law requires defendants to produce and market a different design, the ultimate availability to [plaintiff] is contingent upon whether the FDA would approve the alternate design in the first place.

808 F.3d at 299.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit was “unable to conceive of any coherent pre-approval duty that defendants would have owed to [plaintiff] when it was developing” the product.  Id. at 300.  See also Young, 2017 WL 706320, at *8 (“the parties have not argued whether Mississippi law recognizes a pre-approval claim, and the Court does not reach the issue”).

The reason that Yates (and, apparently, Young) was “unable to conceive of” a state law pre-approval duty is because such duties do not exist.  Design defects under Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A (1965), do not suffer from the “attenuation”/”speculation” problem identified in Yates because §402A is limited to products that are defective at sale.  “The rule stated in this Section applies only where the product is, at the time it leaves the seller’s hands, in a condition . . . which will be unreasonably dangerous” to the ultimate consumer.  Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, comment g (1965).

In the Third Restatement, this time in the black letter, rather than the comments, all “categories of product defect” are likewise determined “at the time of sale or distribution.”  Restatement (Third) of Torts, Products Liability §2 (1998).  The comments reinforce this view.  “[F]or the liability system to be fair and efficient, the balancing of risks and benefits in judging product design and marketing must be done in light of the knowledge of risks and risk-avoidance techniques reasonably attainable at the time of distribution.”  Id., comment a.  “[T]he plaintiff must prove that such a reasonable alternative was, or reasonably could have been, available at time of sale or distribution.” Id. comment c.  Similarly the black letter of Restatement Third §6(b), specifically applicable to prescription medical products, expressly measured defectiveness – including design defect, to the extent allowed at all − “at the time of sale or other distribution.”

Statutory product liability schemes are generally similar to the common law stated in the Restatements with respect to when defectiveness is measured.  Since both Xarelto and Guidry (on which it almost exclusively relied) are from Louisiana, we looked up the equivalent provision of the Louisiana Product Liability Act, which for design defects provides:

A product is unreasonably dangerous in design if, at the time the product left its manufacturer’s control:  (1) There existed an alternative design for the product that was capable of preventing the claimant’s damage. . . .

La. Stat. Ann. §9:2800.56 (emphasis added).  Thus, under Louisiana law, an available alternative design must exist “at the time the product left its manufacturer’s control.”  E.g., Reynolds v. Bordelon, 172 So. 3d 607, 614 (La. 2015) (“the plaintiff was first required to show an alternative design for the [product] existed at the time it left [defendant’s] control”); Roman v. Western Manufacturing, Inc., 691 F.3d 686, 700–01 (5th Cir. 2012) (“the statute required [plaintiff] to prove (i) that an alternative design existed at the time [defendant] manufactured the [product]”)  (applying Louisiana law).

Thus, quite apart from preemption, there is no common-law claim for a product that became defective at some time – years, perhaps decades, before the product itself was sold – when the design was first submitted to a government regulator like the FDA.  This essentially universal common-law requirement exists, as the Restatement Third discussed, to ensure that defendants are judged by the state of the art existing at the time of manufacture, not some other time way later, or presumably way earlier (although we suspect that the Restatements’ drafters were, like the court in Yates, “unable to conceive of” something as bizarre as a purported duty to redesign a product years before it had ever been sold to anyone).

In order to avoid this result, Guidry was forced to ignore the express terms of the Louisiana statute – “at the time the product left its manufacturer’s control.”  Contrary to what the Louisiana legislature had mandated, Guidry replaced “product” with “design” – specifically “chemical composition”:

Defective design claims are supposedly preempted because the drug manufacturer loses control to alter the chemical composition of the drug once the FDA approves it.  Application of the defendants’ preemption theory necessarily entails that the drug “leaves the manufacturer’s control” when the FDA approves it, not when it is sold to consumers.  Consequently, the “unreasonably dangerous” analysis in the defective design context necessarily occurs pre-FDA approval (the only period in which the drug manufacturer has control over the drug’s design).

206 F. Supp.3d at 1208.  As a regulatory matter, that proposition is simply false.  A manufacturer still has “control” of product design.  It can file what’s called a “supplement” to its NDA at any time to change a design.  However, the FDA gets to evaluate the supplement first, before it can go into effect – and that triggers preemption.

But for present purposes, note how Guidry put the rabbit in the hat.  It truncated its quotation of the statute – starting just after the legislature’s operative term “the product.”  The LPLA even defines “product”:

(3) “Product” means a corporeal movable that is manufactured for placement into trade or commerce, including a product that forms a component part of or that is subsequently incorporated into another product or an immovable.

La. Stat. Ann. §9:2800.53(3).  A “product” is thus “corporeal” – it is not merely its “design,” nor is it just its “chemical composition.”  Guidry never acknowledges this statutory definition.  “Corporeal” nowhere appears in that extremely long opinion.

Thus Guidry conveniently omitted what the legislature in fact enacted.  Only by substituting “design”/“chemical composition” for “product” as defined by the LPLA could Guidry advance to its next remarkable proposition:  that in the case of all FDA-approved products, Louisiana’s (or presumably some other state’s) “’unreasonably dangerous’ analysis in the defective design context necessarily occurs pre-FDA approval.”  206 F. Supp.3d at 1208 (emphasis added).

“Necessarily”?  Come on, now.

What does Guidry cite for this remarkable proposition that juries must determine the defectiveness of an FDA-approved design at a point before it was ever approved by the FDA – that is, many years before it was ever used by any plaintiff?

Nothing at all.  Zilch.  Not a single statute.  Not a single case.  Guidry made it up.

As we have stated many times before, for a federal court to invent new state law, expanding liability where the state’s courts and lawmakers have not gone, is a serious violation of federalism under Erie v. Tompkins.  “As always, in conducting [an Erie] inquiry our task is ‘to predict state law, not to create or modify it’ − that is, we are ‘to apply existing Louisiana law, not to adopt innovative theories for the state.’”  Holden v. Connex-Metalna Management Consulting GmbH, 302 F.3d 358, 365 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Weben Industries, Inc., 794 F.2d 1005, 1008 (5th Cir. 1986)).  As the en banc Fifth Circuit explained thirty years ago:

As a federal court, it is not for us to adopt innovative theories of state law, but simply to apply that law as it currently exists. . . .  We are emphatically not permitted to do merely what we think best; we must do that which we think the [state’s] Supreme Court would deem best.  Finally, under Erie we cannot skirt the clear import of state decisional law solely because the result is harsh.

Jackson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 781 F.2d 394, 397 (5th Cir. 1986) (en banc) (citations and quotation marks omitted), overruled in part on other grounds, Salve Regina College v. Russell, 499 U.S. 225 (1991) (rejecting appellate deference to in-state district court Erie predictions).

As Jackson “emphatically” held, “under Erie we cannot skirt the clear import of state decisional law solely because the result is harsh.”  That’s exactly where Guidry erred.  Before mangling Louisiana’s statutory defect-at-sale requirement, Guidry complained about a harsh result:

The Court first notes that, if it finds the plaintiff’s defective design claim is preempted, even under a pre-FDA approval theory, the result is that a Louisiana plaintiff can never bring a defective design claim against a drug manufacturer. . . .   And no federal remedy exists either. . . .  As a result, if the defendants’ preemption argument prevails, Louisiana plaintiffs will have no remedy against a drug manufacturer for a defect in a drug’s design.

206 F. Supp. at 1206-07 (Levine quotation omitted) (emphasis original).  Thus, the Erie error in Guidry is no accident.  The decision deliberately flouted the law to avoid a result it didn’t like.  For the hundredth time we’ll say, strange things happen in tort preemption cases.  In Guidry, that strangeness was the invention out of whole cloth of a novel “pre-approval” design defect that is flatly inconsistent with Louisiana’s defect-at-sale requirement for design defects.

Not only that, but the contortions that this novel idea of “pre-approval” design defects require of the well-established defect-at-sale requirement (both statutory and common-law) will have unintended consequences.  The LPLA, similarly to the common-law as stated in the Second and Third Restatements, imposes the exact same “at the time the product left its manufacturer’s control” limit on warning defects.  La. Stat. Ann. §9:280.57(A).  Warnings are FDA approved, too, so if defect analysis “necessarily occurs,” Guidry, 206 F. Supp.3d at 1208, prior to FDA approval, consider whether a plaintiff should be able to “claim[] that the defendants intentionally concealed or downplayed the seriousness and likelihood of these adverse side effects” during post-approval promotional activities.  Id. at 1199.  Guidry found nothing amiss with the warning claims, id., but unless we are dealing with a “heads plaintiffs win; tails defendants lose” situation, the defect at sale requirement – whether statutory or common-law – has to run from the same date for both warning and design claims.  And on warning claims, that absurdly early date favors defendants.

In sum – forgetting about preemption − the notion of a “pre-approval” design defect is a non-starter under state law, and rightly so. The legal requirement that a product be defective at the time of distribution is a bedrock product liability principle in all states, and as just discussed, that requirement is utterly incompatible with plaintiffs’ new defect theory that pushes the defect analysis earlier by years if not decades.  This novel theory is being asserted solely to avoid the FDA-pre-approval trigger for preemption first recognized in Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009).  But federal courts under Erie are not supposed to make up new state law just because Levine’s preemption analysis happens to require broad preemption in design defect cases.

Today, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the post-Levine branded drug preemption decision in Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., No. 16-4050 (10th Cir. May 2, 2017).  You can read our discussion of the district court opinion in Cerveny here.

While any decision with a description of “affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded” is necessarily something of a mixed bag, we’re pleased to report that the defense side won the two most important preemption issues presented in Cerveny (preemptive effect of FDA citizen’s petition denials and of FDA “no evidence” determinations, the court dodged the third (the judge/jury issue from Fosamax), and did its reversing and remanding on issues that could still eventually be preempted, but that it thought the district court had paid insufficient attention.

Cerveny was a birth defect case, and the plaintiff’s major claim was that she took the drug before becoming pregnant.  Slip op. at 2, 13 (all “parties agree that [plaintiff mother] took [the drug] before she became pregnant, but not afterward”).  Plaintiff made a secondary claim – about warnings of risks that the plaintiff did not actually encounter – that if a warning the FDA had actually proposed, concerning the possibility of birth defects during pregnancy, had been included, she wouldn’t ever have taken the drug, even though she never actually took it during pregnancy.  Id. at 3-4.  As we recently discussed in our Smoke Screens & Side Shows post, the law overwhelmingly rejects warning claims based on risks that the plaintiff never actually encountered.

The first theory was the important one, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed preemption:

The ruling was correct on [plaintiffs’] first theory, for the undisputed evidence shows that the FDA would not have approved a warning about taking [the drug] before pregnancy.

Slip op. at 4. As for the second, stay tuned, we’ll discuss it in the order the opinion addressed the claims.

The “clear evidence” required by Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009), existed as to plaintiffs’ before-pregnancy theory because that issue was directly presented to the FDA prior to the injuries claimed in Cerveny by a citizen’s petition that the FDA rejected for lack of evidence.  Thus Cerveny presented the same “changes being effected” exception to FDA pre-approval of warning changes situation as had Levine.  However, “even when this exception applies, the FDA will ultimately approve the label change only if it is based on reasonable evidence of an association.”  Cerveny, slip op. at 7-8 (regulatory citation omitted).

Plaintiffs first tried to argue that there could never be preemption in branded drug warning cases, claiming that Levine’s “discussion of the “clear evidence” standard [w]as dicta.”  Id. at 11.  That Hail Mary pass went nowhere:

[O]ur court has relied on Levine in holding that a state tort claim is preempted if a pharmaceutical company presents clear evidence that the FDA would have rejected an effort to strengthen the label’s warnings.  Thus, we must apply the “clear evidence” test.

Id. at 11-12 (citing Dobbs v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, 606 F.3d 1269 (10th Cir. 2010)).

Next, as this blog has discussed, while Cerveny was pending, the Third Circuit decided In re Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, 852 F.3d 268 (3d Cir. 2017), including its precedent-shattering holding that the “what the FDA might have done” question posed by Levine “clear evidence” preemption wasn’t a question of law after all.  Id. at 286-89.  Plaintiffs in Cerveny had not argued that proposition, but once Fosamax was decided, they belatedly tried to raise it.  The Tenth Circuit was not inclined to go there.

[Plaintiffs] insist that we should adopt the Third Circuit’s approach and deny summary judgment if “no reasonable juror could conclude that it is anything less than highly probable that the FDA would have rejected” the proposed label.  We are reticent to take this approach, for the parties’ appeal briefs do not address this issue.

Cerveny, slip op. at 11-12.  Ultimately, though, Fosamax didn’t matter because even assuming that its standard applied, preemption barred plaintiffs’ before-pregnancy warning claim.

The court first looked at the direct regulatory history of the drug, and FDA consideration of teratologically-related warnings.  Not enough, the court held:

[The drug’s] regulatory history is similar to Phenergan’s [the drug in Levine].  Like Phenergan, [this drug] had appeared on the market for decades before [plaintiff mother] took [it].  And [defendant] has intermittently corresponded with the FDA about [the drug’s] labels. . . .  Likewise, the FDA’s approval of [the drug’s] labels suggests only that the FDA knew about potential issues involving pre-pregnancy use . . . not that the FDA would have rejected a stronger warning if one had been proposed.

Cerveny, slip op. at 17.  So, if that was all the regulatory history, the defendant would have lost. – but it wasn’t.

Enter the citizen’s petition.

A plaintiff’s lawyer brought a citizen’s petition seeking to force the FDA to add a pre-pregnancy birth defect warning to the drug after the use at issue in Cerveny.  Id. at 14 & n.8, 18-19.  That petition was denied in 2009 (the use in Cerveny occurred in 1992).  Id. at 19.  Critically, the FDA denied that petition for lack of scientific basis – using the same regulatory standard of proof applicable if the manufacturer had sought the same change.

The FDA concluded that . . . “the scientific literature [did] not justify ordering changes to the labeling that warn of such risks beyond those presently included in labeling”. . . .  [Petitioner] sought reconsideration, which he twice supplemented with more information.  The FDA declined to reconsider, explaining that the original denial had “appropriately applied the standards in the [FDCA].

Cerveny, slip op. at 19.

The petition denial satisfied Levine’s “clear evidence” standard.  Plaintiffs’ “failure-to-warn claims are based on the same theories and scientific evidence presented in [the] citizen petition.”  Id.

Cerveny rejected plaintiffs’ argument that citizen’s petitions shouldn’t count.  First, label changes are serious business.  “[T]he FDA views overwarnings as problematic because they can render the warnings useless and discourage use of beneficial medications.” Id. at 20.  Second, “the FDA standard for revising a warning label does not discriminate between proposals submitted by manufacturers and proposals submitted by citizens.” Id. at 21 (regulatory citation omitted).  Arguments that the FDA nonetheless differentiated between manufacturers and independent petitioners didn’t hold water:

[Plaintiffs] suggest that the FDA disobeys its own regulations to apply different standards depending on the source of the proposed change. But we do not presume that the FDA deviates from regulatory requirements.

*          *          *          *

[plaintiffs] hypothesize that the FDA would be more receptive to a manufacturer’s request to strengthen a warning than to a citizen’s effort to compel a stronger warning.  But a factual dispute cannot be based on speculation that the FDA would jettison its legal requirements and rubber-stamp [defendant’s] hypothetical proposal notwithstanding the risk of overwarning.

Under the same standard for manufacturer-initiated changes, the FDA rejected a citizen petition containing arguments virtually identical to [plaintiffs’].  We will not assume that the FDA would have scuttled its own regulatory standard if [defendant] had requested the new warning.  Thus, we reject [plaintiff’s] challenge to [defendant’s] reliance on [the] citizen petition.

Id. at 21, 23 (citations and alternative explanations for FDA conduct omitted).  Third, even under a Fosamax standard, the FDA’s rejection of the citizen’s petition was a “smoking gun” that “foreclose[d] any reasonable juror from finding that the FDA would have approved” the label change advocated by plaintiffs.  Id. at 23 n.11.

Thus a no-evidence rejection of a comparable warning change was preemptive.  There was no “bright-line rule” that such a rejection was insufficient to constitute “clear evidence” satisfying Levine.  Thus, Cerveny rejected contrary cases, including one that we have criticized – slip op. at 25-27 (rejecting Reckis v. Johnson & Johnson, 28 N.E.3d 445 (Mass. 2015), Schedin v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 808 F. Supp.2d 1125, 1133 (D. Minn. 2011), and Forst v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 639 F. Supp.2d 948, 954 (E.D. Wis. 2009)) − and distinguished others.  Slip op. at 24-25, 27 (distinguishing Mason v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 596 F.3d 387, 396 (7th Cir. 2010), Koho v. Forest Laboratories, Inc., 17 F. Supp.3d 1109, 1117 (W.D. Wash. 2014), Dorsett v. Sandoz, Inc., 699 F. Supp.2d 1142, 1158-59 (C.D. Cal. 2010), and Hunt v. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, 6 F. Supp.3d 694, 700-01 (E.D. La. 2014)).  Critically, Cerveny distinguished Mason because there, the petition “had been rejected before the plaintiff’s injury.”  Cerveny, slip op. at 24 (emphasis original).  The “bright line” were interested in – that an FDA insufficient-evidence rejection after a plaintiff’s injury is necessarily preemptive, since even less evidence would have existed at any earlier time – remains intact in Cerveny.

Finally, some clarity for the “clear evidence” standard.

However, the court reversed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ weaker claim, that if they had received a stronger warning about a birth-defect risk existing only during pregnancy, they wouldn’t have taken the drug at all (even before pregnancy) and thus the injury wouldn’t have occurred.  As to that risk, they could point to a label change proposed (but not required) by the FDA.  Slip op. at 28-29.  That proposal “d[id] not suggest that the FDA would have approved a warning about taking [the drug] prior to pregnancy,” id. at 29, and thus did not affect preemption of plaintiff’s pre-pregnancy claims.  Id.

Plaintiffs’ pre-pregnancy claim is exactly the sort of attenuated allegation that we addressed at length in our Smoke Screens & Side Shows post – that the plaintiff mother “would not have taken [the drug], even pre-pregnancy, if [defendant] had used the FDA’s proposed wording” about post-pregnancy risks.  Id. at 32.  The problem on appeal in Cerveny was that dismissal had been sought from, and granted by, the trial court solely on preemption grounds, whereas (as our post demonstrates) the best defense was that remote causation claims did not exist under state law.  Id. at 34.

The Tenth Circuit cut plaintiffs a break. Even though the district court had pointed out that it “would be a nonsensical result if a plaintiff could avoid a preemption defense by arguing that a drug label could have been strengthened in any form, regardless of its relevance to the plaintiff’s case,” id. at 34 (quoting Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 155 F. Supp.3d 1203, 1220 (D. Utah 2016)), the appellate court decided that wasn’t enough to affirm dismissal on non-preemption grounds.

In sum, the district court did not consider whether it could rest on Utah law when deciding a summary judgment motion that had relied solely on federal preemption.  Because the district court did not consider this question and it has not been fully briefed on appeal, we leave this question for the district court to address on remand.

Cerveny, slip op. at 36.  So much for affirming on any ground.  Strange things happen in tort preemption cases.  At least the blog’s already done some of the defendant’s research (although we didn’t find any Utah cases, unfortunately).

The last bit was the disposition of plaintiffs’ fraud, misrepresentation, and implied warranty claims. The district court had dismissed them as just preempted warning claims under different names.  Id. at 37.  Again the court cut the plaintiffs a break, holding that any preemption dismissal needed to address those claims separately:

[W]e reverse and remand the award of summary judgment on the claims of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and breach of an implied warranty.  We do not foreclose the possibility that these claims might be preempted.  But on remand, the district court should explain the effect of preemption on th[os]e claims.

Id. at 38.  Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that plaintiffs were not entitled to additional discovery before preemption was decided.  Id. at 38-41.  At least, on remand, the defendant won’t be forced to incur additional discovery costs before teeing up preemption again.

Although not every claim was held preempted on appeal, in our books Cerveny is a significant defense win.  It finds “clear evidence” as a matter of law to preempt the plaintiffs’ main claim.  It holds that citizen’s petition denials are as preemptive as any other form of FDA decisionmaking.  It affirms the importance of overwarning, and thus that an inadequate-information FDA label change preempts all prior claims where there can be no claim of additional information being discovered in the interim.

We wonder whether plaintiffs will appeal.  There is now a direct conflict between Cerveny (a court of appeals) and Reckis (a state high court) on FDA citizen’s petition denials being “clear evidence” under Levine.  We’ve thought from day one that Levine was appallingly reasoned and should be reconsidered, and maybe this is the vehicle.  We also think that Justice Gorsuch, a textualist, won’t put much stock in the Reckis (and plaintiffs’ in Cerveny) rationale that the identical FDA standard doesn’t mean the same thing depending on who is submitting a proposed label change.

Do plaintiffs roll the dice?

 

However a drug/device product liability is styled, it will almost always be focused on a claim of failure to warn.  Why do plaintiffs insist on inserting a cause of action for manufacturing liability when there is not a whiff of evidence that anything went wrong on the production line?  Seldom do we see the pharma equivalent of a mouse in the Coke bottle or, thinking of a more recent case, a bat in the salad.  Similarly, a design defect claim is often a make-weight claim.  How should the design have been improved?  Not selling the product at all is hardly a design improvement.  An entirely different product is not a safer alternative under the law of any enlightened state.  Changing the molecule or the device design cannot be done without FDA approval, so preemption should apply (even if courts often miss this point).  No, failure to warn is where the action is.  In the wake of Wyeth v. Levine, it seemed that preemption would be a tough row to hoe in such cases, but keep hoeing that row because the preemption defense might still be available – as a motion to dismiss, summary judgment motion, directed verdict, or argument to the jury.

 

The recent case of Amos v. Biogen Idec, Inc. et al., 2017 WL 1316968 (W.D.N.Y. April 10, 2017), makes every one of these points for us.  The court granted summary judgment to the defendants in that case, holding that all of the claims were fundamentally about failure to warn, the warning was adequate as a matter of law, and the FDA’s earlier rejection of proposed warnings meant that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted.  The facts of Amos present the sort of situation defendants encounter all too often, but which make for a hard sell to a jury: something very sad happened to an innocent patient, but it was nobody’s fault.  The patient had Multiple Sclerosis too severe to respond well to the usual treatments.  Her doctor recommended Tysabri.  That medicine came with a black box warning that it might increase the risk of Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (“PML”), a viral infection of the brain that is as incurable as MS is.  The patient eventually contracted PML and died.  Her estate filed a lawsuit that included claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty. 

 

From the recital of facts in the Amos case, it appears that the manufacturer of Tysabri was quite diligent and proactive.  It also appears that the defense attorneys did an excellent job of mining the administrative record.  The manufacturer continued to perform clinical trials after initial approval, and promptly alerted the FDA of whatever risks it observed.  Among other things, the company asked the FDA to add information in the label about screening for certain virus antibodies that might increase the risk of PML.  The FDA rejected this proposal a couple of times, finding insufficient evidence at those times to support the label change.  The FDA ultimately relented and approved a label change in 2012 – after the plaintiff’s decedent died.

 

In considering the defense motion for summary judgment, the court concluded that all of the plaintiff’s claims turned on the sufficiency of the warnings.  New York law applied, and there was ample precedent under New York law that adequate warnings precluded claims for negligence, strict liability, breach of warranties, or fraud.  What’s more, the learned intermediary applied to claims regarding prescription drug warnings, and the record was replete with evidence that the prescribing doctor was well aware of the increased risk of  PMI.  It certainly helped the defense that the defendant, in collaboration with the FDA, had created a program called Tysabri Outreach: Unified Commitment to Health (“TOUCH”), which required that, prior to prescribing Tysabri, a physician had to acknowledge in writing that he/she understood the risks of PML and obtained a written acknowledgment from the patient that the patient understands the PML risk. The existence of the TOUCH program was one of several facts that made Amos a hard case for the plaintiff to win.

 

Even so, we all know that no matter how comprehensive and informative a warning label is, a good plaintiff lawyer can flyspeck it and find, or make up, some gaps.  The plaintiff lawyers in the Amos case are well known to us, and are very, very good.  They argued that the Tysabri warnings were inadequate because they failed to include information regarding the correlation between the virus antibodies and PML, and failed to inform doctors of the risks associated with duration of treatment and prior treatment with an immunosuppressant.  To our eyes, the plaintiff lawyers made the best arguments they could.  In too many courts, such an argument would furnish enough of a crutch for a plaintiff-leaning (or lazy-leaning) judge to mutter ‘factual dispute’ and deny the motion in a post-card ruling.  But not this court.  The judge analyzed New York law and held that even without the details regarding specific risk factors, “when read as a whole, the warnings unmistakably conveyed the seriousness of PML and its association with Tysabri treatment.”  That “read as a whole” point is important.  Do not let a court tell you that it is the jury’s duty to read the warnings as a whole.  It is the court’s job to assess whether the warning is adequate as a matter of law, and plaintiff post hoc fly-specking should not be enough to plant a case in front of twelve citizens good and true (and half-asleep and inflamed with sympathy and anti-corporate hatred).    

 

Even aside from the conclusion that the Tysabri warnings were adequate as a matter of law, the court offered an alternative basis for dismissing the case:  the claims were preempted as a matter of law.  Wyeth v. Levine ruled against preemption on the (at least partially specious) ground that drug companies can unilaterally ramp up warnings through the Changes Being Effected (“CBE”) process.  But the Amos court accurately observed that CBE is not available in all situations, and definitely is not available to add or change a black box warning, which is what was at issue in this Tysabri case.  Moreover, “the evidence of record leads inescapably to the conclusion that the FDA would not have approved a change to Tysabri’s label prior to 2012.”  With respect to Tysabri, there were two “smoking gun” rejections from the FDA. 

 

Also notable in Amos:  a second defendant in the case, a distributor of Tysabri, received summary judgment on preemption grounds.  The distributor did not own the drug’s New Drug Application, and thus had no power under the FDA scheme to alter warnings in any way.  The distributor’s inability to act independently to change warnings meant that, under the Mensing and Bartlett decisions, all claims against it were preempted.

 

There have been other cases around the country where courts arrived at similar rulings that Tysabri warnings were adequate as a matter of law and that failure to warn claims were preempted.  Perhaps plaintiff lawyers will do their best to distinguish these cases on their facts.  We will, doubtless, hear that “smoking gun” has become the standard for the Wyeth v. Levine “clear evidence” standard. We heard something nearly as silly from our home appellate court recently.  But reading the Amos case in the same way that the Amos court read the Tysabri label – as a whole – there is an awful lot of comfort in that case for drug and device defendants.

   

 

Imagine a conspiracy so vast that it includes not only your usual plaintiff-side fantasy of the FDA conspiring with a drug company, but also high FDA officials, President Obama, Robert Mercer (noted Trump supporter and reputed Breitbart financier), a number of other investors, and just for good measure President and Hillary Clinton.

Larry Klaman could, and thus brought the lawsuit that recently resulted in Aston v. Johnson & Johnson, ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1214399 (D.D.C. March 31, 2017).

Nobody else did, though.

In particular, and fortunately for everyone on the defense side, the judge in Aston could not.  Reading the Aston opinion, it is evident that the court is beyond skeptical of the vast, or even half-vast, conspiracy claims.  In a nutshell, five plaintiffs who claimed a great many personal injuries (the opinion lists 74 separate alleged injuries, 2017 WL 1214399, at *1) from their use of the drug Levaquin, brought suit alleging that the drug’s manufacturer and the FDA were in cahoots to cover up the drug’s risks, in order to increase the value of the manufacturer’s stock, to the advantage of various investors.  As for the political officials, according to the opinion:

Amazingly, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton also make cameo appearances in plaintiffs’ alleged scheme, together with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Foundation; these actors are alleged to have solicited, or received, “gratuities” from defendants in exchange for securing [another alleged conspirator’s] appointment as FDA Commissioner.

Id. at *2.  We admit, this is an extreme oversimplification – the opinion took two Westlaw pages just to sort through the Aston plaintiffs’ labyrinthine conspiracy allegations.

Plaintiffs’ legal theories were almost as numerous as their injury allegations – twenty-two counts, including RICO, state-law (Arizona (?)) RICO, strict product liability, negligence, fraud, express and implied warranty, unjust enrichment, Lanham Act, and a bunch of state consumer fraud claims (D.C., New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, and California). Id. at *3.

Aston threw everything out on the many defendants’ motions to dismiss. The half-vast conspiracy, and all its subsidiary theories of liability went down in a hail of defense-friendly rulings, and that’s why – aside from its humor value – the Aston opinion is well worth reading.  We’ll list the rulings so our readers will have an idea of what this goodie basket contains.

RICO – The deficiency in the RICO counts was rather basic. RICO does not allow recovery for personal injuries.  “The overwhelming weight of authority discussing the RICO standing issue holds that the ‘business or property’ language of Section 1964(c) does not encompass personal injuries.” Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *4 (citation and quotation marks omitted).  For a compilation of that authority, see Bexis’ Book, §2.15, footnote 3.  Further, “as plaintiffs’ counsel is well aware, courts in this District and elsewhere have consistently rejected the argument that pecuniary losses derivative of personal injuries are injuries to ‘business or property’ cognizable under RICO.”  Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *4 (citing, inter alia, Klayman v. Obama, 125 F. Supp.3d 67, 88 (D.D.C. 2015)).  Aston also distinguishes “tobacco litigation [RICO] precedents” because those cases arose from a federal prosecution that was not limited by the “business or property” requirements of RICO’s private cause of action.  2017 WL 1214399, at *5.

Nor did the Aston plaintiffs satisfy RICO’s causation requirements – for another very basic reason.  Even the most recent of the five plaintiffs’ injuries arose before the conspirators allegedly acted:

Barring some sort of temporal paradox, there is no way that suppression of an FDA report in 2013 could have caused plaintiffs to be injured in 2012 or earlier.  Because plaintiffs’ allegations, taken as true, are insufficient to establish proximate causation, their federal RICO counts must be dismissed.

Id. (citing H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 22–23 (1895)) (other citation omitted).  On this basis alone, we’re rooting for the defendants to obtain recovery of their counsel fees, since the underlying premise of the entire litigation was physically impossible.

Arizona RICO – Same basis:  “[P]laintiffs have failed to plead facts that make possible − let alone plausible − the conclusion that the alleged cover up by defendants was the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.”  Id. at *6.  Unfortunately, the relatively terse dismissal of does not answer the burning question − Why Arizona?

Lanham Act – Another fundamental basis for dismissal.  “[T]o come within the zone of interests in a suit for false advertising under [the Lanham Act], a plaintiff must allege an injury to a commercial interest in reputation or sales.”  Id. (quoting Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1390 (2014) (emphasis original in Aston).

Now comes the most useful stuff – dismissal of the common-law claims.  For the record, Aston applies the law of the District of Columbia rather than the law of the plaintiffs’ (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, California) or defendants’ (New Jersey) domiciles.  Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *6.

Product Liability (both strict liability and negligence) – Manufacturing defect is TwIqballed.  For all its factual prolixity, the Aston complaint was utterly devoid of any allegations that the drug wasn’t made precisely as intended.  Id. at *7 (“for all these recitals of the term ‘manufacture’ and its derivatives, plaintiffs plead no facts that would appear to relate to manufacturing defects”) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Warning related claims were also dismissed, in a usefully rigorous application of TwIqbal.  Dismissal in Aston occurred because plaintiffs failed to plead:  (1) “the contents of the warning label” when the drug was taken (2) “how the contents of the label were inadequate,” (3) “the timing of each plaintiffs use of” the drug, including “when each individual plaintiff was prescribed,” (4) “the onset of [plaintiffs’] injuries,” (5) “how the alleged distinctions in the warnings would have had a causal effect,” (6) “what injuries each individual plaintiff experienced,” (7) “why [plaintiffs] think [the drug] was the cause of the[ir] injuries,” and (8) “why [plaintiffs] think inadequate warnings contributed to their injuries.”  Id. (various quotations omitted).  That’s a spicy TwIqbal – without even having to get into the learned intermediary rule.

As to warnings, we also note that the court held that all warnings publicly available on the FDA’s website are subject to judicial notice.  Id. at *2 n.1.

Design defect claims were preempted under Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013), and Aston rejected the well-worn plaintiff argument that, for some reason, implied preemption is different in generic, as opposed to branded (as in Aston) drugs:

Plaintiffs are mistaken.  [Bartlett] expressly found that “[o]nce a drug − whether generic or brand-name − is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to [its formulation]” by federal law.  133 S. Ct. at 2471.  Thus, even though [Bartlett] arose from a state-law design-defect claim against a manufacturer of a generic drug, its holding applies to both types of drugs, and plaintiffs’ design-defect claim must be dismissed.

Aston, 2017 WL 1214399, at *8. Preemption is “fully consistent with the well-established tort law principle, ‘especially common in the field of drugs,’ that an unavoidably unsafe product is ‘not defective, nor is it unreasonably dangerous’ where it is ‘properly prepared, and accompanied by proper directions and warning.’”  Id. at *8 n.7 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, comment k (1965)).

Fraud/Misrepresentation – Perhaps predictably, plaintiffs’ fraud-based claims failed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b).  Id.  Allegations broadly “span[ning] the more than twenty-year period” alleged could not possibly allow defendants to file a response.  Id.  Plaintiffs “do not even specify which corporate entity they believe was responsible.”  Id.  Nor did any of the five plaintiffs allege their own circumstances with the required specificity.  Id.  “In sum, plaintiffs fall woefully short of pleading any specific allegations that would support a claim of fraud or misrepresentation.”  Id.

Warranty – Again, perhaps predictably, plaintiffs’ express warranty claims failed for not “plead[ing] any express promises.”  Id. at *9.  Here, Aston made another good TwIqbal ruling:

[T]o state a claim for breach of express warranty in cases involving prescription drugs, Plaintiffs must allege facts demonstrating that Defendants’ affirmations formed the basis of the bargain, i.e., facts regarding how the warranties were made to Plaintiff’s physician, and that Plaintiff’s specific physician relied on them.

Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted).  Implied warranty claims “cannot be independently maintained in a case involving prescription drugs.”  Id.

Unjust Enrichment – As against the investor defendants, merely “earn[ing] profits” from allegedly more valuable stock was “far too remote and speculative to support an unjust enrichment claim.”  Id. at *9.  As against the drug manufacturer defendants, the plaintiffs did not allege “that they conferred a benefit” on those defendants.  Id. at *10 (emphasis original).

[Plaintiffs] do[] not allege that [they] paid any money for [the drug], rather than relying on an insurer, as most patients do.  This omission is significant because there is no authority demonstrating that benefits received from third-parties can be the proper subject of an unjust enrichment claim.

Id. “Because plaintiffs have not pleaded any facts showing that they paid for [the drug], I must dismiss their unjust enrichment claim.”  Id.

Obamacare to the rescue.

Readers should remember this point; we don’t remember ever seeing an individual (as opposed to TPP) unjust enrichment claim that contains the allegations – personal, as opposed to third party payer – required by Aston and the precedent it follows.

Consumer Fraud Claims

Seven states’ laws were implicated − D.C., New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, and California. “Each count fails to state a claim.” Id.

Six of the states (all but Arizona) did not recognize consumer fraud claims involving prescription drugs.  Some states’ statutes did not allow personal injury damages (Pennsylvania, California, D.C.).  Others did not consider prescription drugs to be “consumer” goods (Maryland, New York).  Still other statutes simply had been held inapplicable to prescription drugs (California, Pennsylvania, Illinois).  Id.  Beyond that, all of the consumer fraud claims were dismissed as inadequately pleaded under Rule 9(b), which Aston applied to all consumer fraud claims.  Id. at *11.  In prescription drug cases, Rule 9(b) required specific pleading of prescriber reliance:

[T]he circumstances of those prescription decisions, and plaintiffs’ reliance on them, are particularly important − yet plaintiffs allege no information about them. The absence of detail about Plaintiffs experiences leads to the conclusion that Plaintiffs have not pleaded these claims with the requisite particularity.

Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted).

Finally, none of the plaintiffs resided in D.C. or New York.  Thus, claims under those two states’ consumer fraud statutes were also “dismissed because neither statute applies extraterritorially.”  Id. at *10 n.9.  We’ve always been interested in extraterritoriality.

So that’s Aston for you – an example of really poor facts (for the plaintiffs) making some quite excellent law for our side of the “v.”  Our only quibble with Aston is grammatical – in a couple of places, “principle” is used where “principal” is meant.  Id. at *2 (“principle role”); *6 (“principle place of business”).  But apart from a law clerk needing to repeat fifth grade English, the legal rulings in Aston are truly vast, and not half-vast at all.  In Ashton all too many defendants were made to spend all too much money to hire all too many of us lawyers.  With Aston now dismissed in its entirety, we certainly hope that all the defendants so inconvenienced seek to recover their fees as a sanction against such frivolous litigation.

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

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

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

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

Today we give you something rare from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas — a defense win on preemption. The Philadelphia CCP has been the source of some rather vexing decisions over the years and has certainly taken its share of criticism. Criticism that we think has been rather overstated. Don’t get us wrong, we’ve vehemently voiced our disapproval of several Philadelphia CCP decisions over the years. But there are plenty of times when Philadelphia judges get it right. That happened two weeks ago in Caltagirone v. Cephalon, Inc., 2017 WL 1135576 (Pa. CCP Mar. 23, 2017).

Plaintiff was prescribed an opioid medication to treat his migraines. The drug was approved for use to treat pain related to cancer, so the prescription was off-label. We use that term a lot, but it is worth stopping to remind ourselves what that really means. The FDA-approved labeling for the drug says its intended use is for treating pain in cancer patients. In other words, that was the patient population in which the drug was studied and the data presented to and examined by the FDA and therefore, the indication for which it was approved. Once a drug or device is on the market, however, doctors, who are not governed by the FDA, are free to use those products for any reason they find is medically necessary. Indeed, much of what we know today about drugs and devices comes from physicians using them in the field in ways that they were not originally intended (aspirin as a blood thinner being among the most well-known example). When you break it down like that, it is not surprising that doctors treating patients with migraines who have not been receptive to standard treatments would look to alternative pain medications, such as an opioid with proven success in alleviating pain in cancer patients. In this context, the drug is still being used to treat pain, just a different type of pain.

Back to Caltagirone. The opioid prescribed to plaintiff, in addition to being labeled for use with cancer patients, was also known to be highly addictive. Id. at *1 & 5. The drug was prescribed to plaintiff for 7 years during which time he was in and out of drug treatment programs due to opioid and other drug addictions. Plaintiff ultimately died from his drug addiction. Id. at *1.

Plaintiff’s claims were for negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, and violation of the UTPCPL. The basis for each claim was an allegation that defendants illegally promoted the drug for off-label uses, which was forbidden by the FDA. Id. at *2. The first thing the court does is negate plaintiff’s premise by holding that “generally off-label sales, promotions and prescriptions are proper.” Id. at *3. Further, at the motion to dismiss stage, the court had to accept as true the material facts pleaded by plaintiff. But a critical material fact was missing from plaintiff’s complaint – any allegation that any off-label promotion was false. A false or misleading statement or omission is a requirement for each of plaintiff’s claims under state law. However, plaintiff only alleges that defendants marketed the drug off-label, not that that off-label promotion was false in any way. Because there is no state-law duty to avoid off-label promotion, plaintiff’s claims “could not exist in the absence of federal laws and regulations.” Id. In other words, plaintiff is suing “because the conduct of promoting the drug for migraine headaches violates the FDCA,” not because defendant has breached any state-law duty. Therefore, plaintiff’s action is a private attempt to enforce the FDCA; the type of action that is barred by Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).

While the court dismissed the case with prejudice as preempted, because defendants also asserted that it was barred by the learned intermediary doctrine, the court addressed that issue as well.

Plaintiff argued that the doctrine should not apply because plaintiff’s doctor was not learned because he was given “misinformation” by defendants. Id. at *4. The court saw that for the disingenuous argument that it was. Not only did the prescribing doctor have access to the risk and precaution information provided by defendants and his own medical training and judgment – in this case, the doctor had “actual knowledge” that his patient had become addicted and continued to prescribe the drug for many years. Id. at *5. The physician is the customer under the learned intermediary rule. Id. And it is the physician’s “duty to read and consider the materials from [other medical sources] and writings from the Defendant manufacturers.” Id. The fact that the prescriber may also have read or seen off-label promotion, didn’t change the fact that it was his duty to use all his training and experience, combined with his personal knowledge of the patient, which here included knowledge of addiction (the harm complained of), to treat the plaintiff. The court usefully also noted that the treater has a duty to know what other medications the patient is taking. Id. Keep in mind this strong statement of the learned intermediary’s duty the next time you are arguing this issue in Philadelphia.