Today’s case isn’t about prescription drugs, but rather illegal drugs. More specifically, whether a user of illegal drugs can recover in a civil action against someone who failed to prevent the user from obtaining the drugs. While this is outside our usual field of focus, we have posted about the in pari delicto doctrine before and believe the decision could be analogously useful to drug companies in at least some types of opioid litigation and therefore worthy of notice.
You won’t find that fancy Latin phrase in Hollywood v. Superior Court, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 190 (Cal. App. Ct. Mar. 8, 2018), but that is what the case is about. Plaintiff voluntarily checked himself in to a rehabilitation facility and then proceeded to smuggle in heroin and overdose. Id. at *2-3. He then brought a negligence action against the rehab facility alleging it failed to take reasonable steps to make sure residents could not get illegal drugs. Id. at *3-4. So the question is whether plaintiff’s own misconduct bars his right to recovery in tort for his injuries – in pari delicto or “wrongful conduct” rule. The case also discusses whether the claim is barred on statutory grounds.
The court examined defendant’s statutory defense first. The statute at issue is the Drug Dealer Liability Act (DDLA) which is based on the Model Drug Dealers Liability Act which has been adopted in some version in more than 20 states. Id. at *8. The primary goal of the DDLA is to provide a civil remedy for damages to those who are injured as the result of someone else’s use of illegal drugs – parents, employers, insurers. Id. at *9. Such parties are entitled to both economic and non-economic damages and can recover from both the person who actually sold the illegal drugs to the user and anyone “who knowingly participated in the marketing of illegal controlled substances.” Id. at *12. In other words, the DDLA imposes a broad market share liability “in order to deter drug traffickers with potentially high civil damages awards.” Id. at *11.
The DDLA also allows an illegal drug user to bring a more limited claim, if certain conditions regarding cooperation with law enforcement and non-use of illegal drugs are met. The claim can be brought only against the direct supplier/manufacturer/importer of the actual drugs used and only economic damages can be recovered. Id. at *12-13. The DDLA goes on to state: “An individual user of an illegal controlled substance may not bring an action for damages caused by the use of an illegal controlled substance, except as otherwise provided in this section.” Id. at *13. In Hollywood, the rehab facility argued that that sentence precluded plaintiff from bringing his negligence claim against it as it was not the supplier of the drugs that caused his injury. Now all of this should sound like preemption to our DDL blog readers, but because we are talking about co-equal state law (state statute and state common law), the question is framed as whether the enactment of the statute displaced the existing common law. Id. at *8n.7. And yes, California’s general rule is a presumption against displacement. Id. at *15-16.
First, in construing the sentence limiting the claims a drug user can bring, the court noted that the DDLA defines “individual user” as “the individual whose use of a specified illegal controlled substance is the basis for an action under this division.” Id. at *15. Therefore, the DDLA did not need to repeat “under this division” when talking about the claims an individual user could bring because it was already limited by definition to claims under the act. Id. Second, the court found no legislative intent to “supplant common law” as to the circumstances of when a drug user could pursue claims against a third-party. Since the primary goal of the DDLA was to expand the class of potentially liable parties, the court was unwilling to interpret the act to restrict or bar other common law remedies.
Application of that common law to plaintiff’s claim, however, found it was lacking any legal support. In its analysis of the “wrongful conduct” doctrine, the court examined the development of the law in relation to liability for furnishing alcohol. After some back and forth in the courts, the California legislature enacted a statute to limit the liability of those who serve alcohol finding the consumption of alcohol should be the proximate cause of injuries to the intoxicated person or injuries caused be the intoxicated person, with exceptions for serving minors. Id. at *19-21. Similar laws exist protecting hosts who furnish alcohol. Id. at *22. Some plaintiffs have argued that because these laws confer immunity on those who serve/furnish alcohol, “persons less directly responsible for the intoxicated state of another may be liable under nonstatutory theories.” Id. We had to quote it because we couldn’t think of another way to state such a ridiculous concept. Fortunately, California courts have found it just as ridiculous. In this case, the court concluded that the rehab facility took reasonable steps such as a search upon arrival and periodic room checks to prevent residents from using illegal drugs. It was not required to take extraordinary measures. Such a claim is not supported under the law, nor would public policy favor burdening the very facilities who are trying to help addicts with potential liability for “their residents’ foreseeable but unpreventable predilection to obtain and ingest drugs.” Id. at *28.
The Hollywood court could not find a single case “suggesting that liability could be predicated on the mere failure to undertake affirmative efforts to stop the user from ingesting drugs.” Id. at *25. In other words, there is no viable “general failure to thwart drug use” claim. Id. The same logic should apply to claims against manufacturers of prescription opioid drugs for failure to monitor distributors and retail sellers.