Can you recall what you were doing back in March of this year? To be more precise the day before St. Patty’s Day and the day after the Ides. No? Well, apparently the defendants in the Risperdal and Invega Products Liability Cases pending in California state court were celebrating but they forgot to invite us to the party. We just learned about the very nice preemption decision entered by the trial court in that litigation. Since it’s never too late to celebrate a preemption victory, here are the highlights.

Before we get into the case specifics, the court’s general preemption analysis merits a minute of our time. ‘[I]f the tort plaintiff’s failure to warn theory was already tested by FDA action or inaction or would have required the use of a label on a prescription drug which the FDA would have prohibited,” the claim is preempted. Risperdal and Invega Product Liability Cases, 2017 WL 4100102 at *5 (Cal. Super. Mar. 16, 2017). What remains for private plaintiffs to challenge in a tort setting, therefore, is the adequacy of the label or the reasonableness of the manufacturer in updating the label based on new or additional information not already considered by the FDA. Id.

 In discussing whether information was presented to the FDA for consideration, of course, fraud-on-the-FDA and Buckman enter the discussion. The court nicely summarized the public policy reasons supporting Buckman preemption:

The understandable concern is that allowing a private right of action for “fraud on the FDA” would embroil the agency’s staff, particularly its scientific staff, in court litigation to the derogation of their performance of their primary duties. This would result both from the consumption of time in litigation activity and from a concern that their routine duties, decision-making processes and public communications would all have to be vetted with litigation avoidance in mind.

Id. at *6.

Next the court establishes that the Wyeth v. Levine “clear evidence” standard does not require indisputable evidence, but rather defendants must establish impossibility preemption by “clear and convincing evidence.” Id. And finally, the court found that preemption is a question of law, not fact and therefore an issue for the court, not the jury. To the extent deciding preemption requires the court to rule on a factual dispute regarding what the FDA would do, “the dispute is one regarding a legislative fact, not an adjudicative fact. Thus it presents a legal question for judicial resolution.” Id. at *7.

With that as background, we turn to the specific facts of the case. Risperdal is an anti-psychotic medication. Id. at *1. The Risperdal label that plaintiffs claim is inadequate was modified in 2006 to include language about prolactin elevation and the reported rate of gynecomastia (enlargement of male breasts) among Risperdal users. Id. at *3. Plaintiffs allege that defendants failed to adequately warn of this risk because the labeling did not include the “true” rate of gynecomastia and should have included an instruction to physicians to monitor blood prolactin levels. Id. at *1. Defendants moved for summary judgment on preemption grounds in 5 cases involving plaintiffs from 4 different states. Id.

With respect to the rate of gynecomastia set forth in the label, the FDA specifically approved the pooling of data from 18 studies to arrive at the rate that was used in the labeling. Id. The FDA re-examined the label in 2007-2008 and concluded that it required no labeling changes regarding gynecomastia or prolactin elevations. Id. Plaintiffs argue that the pooled average was lower and that defendants should have disclosed the higher incident rates observed in 2 of the 18 studies. Id. at *8. Because those 2 studies were among those considered by the FDA during the approval process, “the FDA’s position is clear [as to] how information regarding the 18 studies should be described in the label.” Id. This portion of plaintiffs’ claim is therefore preempted.

As to plaintiffs’ allegation that defendants failed to adequately warn about monitoring prolactin levels, plaintiffs rely on “Table 21.” This is a table containing an analysis of 5 studies purportedly showing a statistically significant association between elevated prolactin levels and gynecomastia. Id. The table was in a draft of a journal article but not in the final publication and therefore not submitted to the FDA during the approval process. The studies reviewed in the table, however, were among those considered by the FDA. Id.

 Plaintiffs argued that based on the information in the table, defendants should have independently changed their label under the Changes Being Effected (“CBE”) regulations. However, to implement a CBE label change without prior FDA approval, the change must be based on “newly acquired information” which is defined as

data, analyses, or other information not previously submitted to the agency, which may include (but are not limited to) data derived from new clinical studies, reports of adverse events, or new analyses of previously submitted data (e.g., meta-analyses) if the studies, events or analyses reveal risks of a different type or greater severity or frequency than previously included in submissions to FDA.

Id. at *9. Table 21 doesn’t fit that definition. It may be a different analysis of the data, but it did not show a different type or greater severity or frequency of the risk of gynecomastia which is the focus of the CBE regulation. To the extent plaintiffs also tried to rely on their litigation experts’ analysis of the data, the court point out that that was a tactic tried and rejected in several other litigations as a means of avoiding preemption. Id. So, plaintiffs’ claims are also preempted because the data they rely on to suggest defendants could have changed the label is not newly acquired and could not serve as the basis for an independent label change.

Not only could defendants not have changed the label on their own, the court found clear evidence that the FDA also wouldn’t have approved it.  In 2012, one plaintiffs’ counsel submitted a Citizen’s Petition to the FDA alleging that the Risperdal label did not adequately address elevated prolactin levels, the need to monitor for elevated prolactin levels, or the rates of gynecomastia. Id. at *4. Essentially the same allegations raised in the litigation. In its response denying the petition, the FDA stated that it was commonly known that Risperdal increases prolactin and that gynecomastia is one of the manifestations of increased prolactin. Id. at *5. Based on that the court concluded:

This Court is persuaded that these reasons articulated by the FDA in response to the very claims alleged here provide the kind of “clear evidence” of “legislative fact” which the U.S. Supreme Court requires before a court can hold that impossibility preemption applies. By any standard, there is “clear evidence” that Plaintiffs’ entire theory of label inadequacy focused on prolactin levels was not only considered and rejected by the FDA but also rests on information (and allegations) known to the FDA and the medical community. The FDA’s review of the 18 clinical studies—which form the underlying data of any theory that Plaintiffs posit—both pre-approval and in subsequent reviews, and its subsequent inaction, seem to be the definite upshot of a conscious FDA choice on information before the agency. It is not this Court’s job to revisit a decision made by the FDA.

Id. at *11.

It may not be the court’s job to revisit FDA decisions, but it is certainly this blog’s job to visit strong preemption decisions like this one. So, just a reminder that if you get a good decision – forward it along. Don’t make us wait 6 months to join the party.

Hope springs eternal. At least that is what the optimists say, and while we would like to see the bright side of the Missouri Supreme Court’s split opinion on venue in Barron v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., No. SC 96151, 2017 WL 4001487 (Mo. Sept. 12, 2017), we are having trouble this morning finding our rose-colored glasses.  The court’s ruling that a black box warning on the exact condition at issue is “irrelevant” does not help either.

Faithful readers will recognize Barron v. Abbott Laboratories from our list of worst opinions of 2016.  The Missouri Court of Appeals’ opinion in Barron affirming a $38 million verdict came in at #3 on that list.  What did that opinion do to warrant such distinction?  You might call it a twofer:  The court upheld an unfair application of Missouri’s unique and unexplainable venue rules, plus held that a black box warning that warned of the exact risk at issue was sufficiently inadequate to sustain a failure-to-warn verdict and punitive damages.  We discussed that opinion here.

The Missouri Supreme Court has now affirmed this result, and it is still unfair on multiple levels. Let’s start with venue.  The only claims at issue in this trial were those brought by a Minnesota plaintiff against an Illinois defendant under Minnesota law.  Of course, the Minnesota plaintiff found her way to the City of St. Louis by filing a complaint there with 24 plaintiffs from 13 different states, including four from Missouri. Barron, 2017 WL 4001487, at *1.  This is a tactic we often see and to which we object.  But the angle that seems to be unique under Missouri procedure is that venue is proper in the county where any plaintiff “was first injured.” Id. at *5 (concurring opinion).  That means that any plaintiff—including the Minnesotan who got her claims to trial—can piggyback his or her way into any Missouri county where any co-plaintiff “was first injured,” even though neither her claims nor the defendant have any identifiable relationship to that forum.

Even the Missouri Supreme Court in Barron could not defend this rule, but instead affirmed the plaintiff’s verdict on the basis that the trial court’s refusal to transfer venue caused the defendant no prejudice. Id. at *2.  Query how a verdict this size on these facts would not demonstrate prejudice.  Regardless, we find it interesting that a four-judge majority of the Missouri Supreme Court dodged the merits.

Which leads to a ray of hope. Three judges filed a concurring opinion stating that once the trial court determined that each Plaintiff’s claims should be tried separately, it was error for the court not to sever and transfer claims for which venue was no longer proper. Id. at *7.  In other words, venue is not a static inquiry.  When the trial court determined that the claims should be tried separately, it “necessarily decided there are no further gains in efficiency of expeditiousness to be had from the joinder.” Id. at *6.  At that point, “the trial court has discretion to deny a subsequent or renewed motion to sever only in the rarest of circumstances” and “an abuse of discretion in denying such a motion will be patently prejudicial.” Id. The concurring opinion further faulted the majority for applying a “no prejudice” standard because a defendant

will never obtain relief without showing the elusive, undefined, and likely unprovable prejudice that the principal opinion demands. I am unwilling to countenance such an immediate, improper, and easily avoided outcome.

Id. at *7. Sure, it’s a concurring opinion, but it calls out the unworkable situation that Barron has reinforced.  We will take this four-to-three decision as endorsing efforts for reform.

Missouri-based defendants should take particular interest. The United States Supreme Court’s BMS opinion clamping down on personal jurisdiction should reduce the number of out-of-state plaintiffs suing non-Missouri defendants in Missouri.  But the joinder problem remains where personal jurisdiction is not an issue.  As the concurring opinion noted, “Even though the use of a Rule 52.05(a) joinder to combine multiple in-state and out-of-state plaintiffs in a single action largely will be prevented in the future by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, [137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017)], . . . the use of Rule 52.05(a) to join the claims of multiple Missouri plaintiffs in a single petition will (and should) still occur.” Barron, at *4.  Missouri’s joinder rules therefore discriminate against Missouri defendants, who will remain subject to Missouri’s joinder rules while out-of-state defendants will less often be around.  This is another reason why reform should finally occur.

Now, how about the warnings? When a boxed warning—the strongest warning permitted under the FDCA—warns of the complication about which the plaintiff is complaining, it should be adequate as a matter of law.  Period.  You can read more on this here.  In Bannon, the Supreme Court did not set forth what the black box warning said, so we will:  “[THE DRUG] CAN PRODUCE TERTOGENIC EFFECTS SUCH AS NEURAL TUBE DEFECTS (E.G., SPINA BIFIDA).  ACCORDINGLY, THE USE OF [THE DRUG] IN WOMEN OF CHILDBEARING POTENTIAL REQUIRES THAT THE BENEFITS OF ITS USE BE WEIGHED AGAINST THE RISK OF INJURY TO THE FETUS.”  The plaintiff in Barron alleges she was born with spina bifida, which is right there in the warning—in all caps, and boldface, and surrounded by box.  To make matters worse, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the black box warning was “not relevant” to punitive damage. Id. at *4.  Quibble if you will over whether a black box warning is adequate as a matter of law.  But where the basis for liability is an alleged failure to warn, there is no way to explain how a clear and prominent warning on the exact complication at issue can be “not relevant.”  We will leave it at that.

So is there room for hope? As we observed in connection with another Missouri case a few weeks ago, time will tell.  Whatever the future holds, we are betting that Barron v. Abbott Laboratories will be in the running for the worst opinions of 2017.  Time (and Bexis) will tell.

We’ve made no secret of our dislike of the so called “heeding presumption.” We have a tag on this subject with multiple posts decrying this presumption — that juries may presume that if an alternative adequate warning had been given, it would have been heeded by the plaintiff (or, in prescription medical product cases, the prescriber). That is essentially a shift of the burden of proof on warning causation from plaintiffs to defendants without any justification. Warnings are ignored all the time.

Our posts note that it is a fairly even split between jurisdictions rejecting and those adopting the heeding presumption. But we’ve taken special note of New York law on the issue because it is a bit muddled. In a post a couple of years ago we explained how a bad Second Circuit decision on the issue (Liriano v. Hobart Corp., 170 F.3d 264 (2d Cir. 1999)) overreached and ignored New York state court precedent spawning a line of cases which purport to recognize a general heeding presumption. At that time we predicted it would require a decision from the New York Court of Appeals to clean up the mess the federal and lower courts had made. We came close to such a decision last year in In re New York City Asbestos Litigation, 59 N.E.3d 458 (N.Y. 2016) (“NYC Asbestos”). Unfortunately, the court determined that the defendant had waived the issue of whether the heeding presumption existed in New York. But, in dicta, went on to say:

[Defendant’s] current complaint about the court’s instructions on the presumption is unpreserved. Of course, our rejection of [defendant’s] claim on preservation grounds should not be taken as an acceptance or rejection of the trial court’s heeding instructions on the merits, and regardless of the propriety of those instructions, trial courts must continue to ensure that their jury instructions honor the principle that the burden of proving proximate causation, which in a case like this one includes the burden of demonstrating that the injured party would have heeded warnings, falls squarely on plaintiffs.

Id. at 482 (emphasis added).

We are happy to report today that that dicta has not gone unnoticed in the drug and device context. Last week, a New York federal court ignored the line of cases from Liriano and instead cited NYC Asbestos and basic New York causation law to hold that New York doesn’t recognize a heeding presumption. The case is Adeghe v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, 2017 WL 3741310 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 30, 2017) and involves allegations that plaintiff developed gynecomastia as a result of his use of Risperdal. Id. at *1.  In addition to NYC Asbestos, the court relied on other cases for the general proposition that plaintiff bears the burden of proof that the alleged failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury and that plaintiff’s burden “includes adducing proof that the user of a product would have read and heeded a warning had one been given.” Id. at *6.

The court provided a strong rationale for why the heeding presumption is not justified in drug/device cases:

Particularly in a case involving failure to warn of the risks of a pharmaceutical product, depending on the plaintiff’s condition and treatment alternatives, one may not reasonably assume that a patient or his treating physician will forego a drug because of disclosed risks.

 Id.

This is an important reminder about just what it means to apply a heeding presumption in a pharmaceutical case. The warnings at issue for drugs and devices are warnings about potential risks. Risks that the prescriber, the learned intermediary, needs to weigh against his knowledge of his patient, his patient’s medical condition, other available alternative treatments (and their risks), and his general medical knowledge. All of that cannot be swept under the rug with a presumption that an alternative warning would have tipped the scales toward non-prescription. Doctors prescribe drugs/devices everyday despite any number of risks inherent in their use.   At best a heeding presumption in a pharmaceutical case, if applied at all, should only go so far as to assume that the alternative warning would have been read by the prescriber. But, it is simply too huge a leap to presume the effect that new warning would have had on the prescribing decision given all the other variables.

In Adeghe, the court found no evidence (no prescriber testimony) that plaintiff wouldn’t have been prescribed Risperdal if a different warning had been given. Id. at *7. Moreover, plaintiff did not adduce any evidence that when the risks of the drug were balanced against its benefits, it would not have been prescribed. Id. “Plaintiff cannot rely on mere speculation as to this medical determination to defeat summary judgment.” Id. Kudos to the court for distinguishing prescription drugs and devices from household consumer goods.

Summary judgment was granted on plaintiff’s failure to warn claim (and on express warranty for lack of any affirmation, id. at *5), but several other causes of action remain because summary judgment was denied on medical causation. The court found plaintiff’s expert had done enough, reviewed studies and considered and addressed alternative causes, to survive a Daubert challenge. Certainly not the worst expert we’ve seen and hardly as important as the heeding presumption decision both for its help in further clarifying New York law and in its acknowledgement of why the presumption has no place in prescription drug and device cases.

We’ve posted a lot about Plavix recently but all in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision in BMS v. Superior Court on personal jurisdiction. So, we don’t blame you if you forgot that the product at issue in that case was Plavix. The product wasn’t really at the heart of the analysis. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant having any contacts with or relation to the jurisdiction was where all the action was. But that’s state court. There is also a federal MDL concerning Plavix where the claims of plaintiffs who weren’t trying to be “litigation tourists” are moving forward on the substance. But it doesn’t look like they are moving very far if the recent decision in Armantrout v. Bristol-Myers Squibb, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131334 (D.N.J. Aug. 17, 2017) is any indication.

Plavix is an anticoagulant which is approved for prescription alone or in conjunction with aspirin. Because the purpose of an anticoagulant is to prevent the formation of blood clots, it is well known that Plavix carries an increased risk of bleeding. Information about the risk of bleeding has been in the Plavix label since it entered the market. Id. at *4-5. While most of that is probably common knowledge, we thought it warranted repeating given that the crux of the claims in this litigation are for failure to warn. Failure to warn of a risk known by practitioners and most lay persons and that was disclosed in the product’s labeling. If this isn’t an uphill battle for plaintiffs, we don’t know what is.

Plaintiff alleged that he was prescribed and used Plavix in combo-therapy with aspirin following implantation of a stent to treat his acute coronary syndrome. Plaintiff used Plavix and aspirin for 8 years before he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal bleeding. Id. at *7-8. His prescriber testified at his deposition that:

  • He was aware of the risk of bleeding the entire time he prescribed Plavix, id. at *9;
  • He was aware of the increased risk of bleeding when prescribed in combination therapy with aspirin, another anticoagulant, id.;
  • He believed that combo-therapy was medically necessary for the type of stent implanted in plaintiff, id. at *10;
  • In his medical assessment, the benefits of combination therapy outweighed the risks for this plaintiff, id.;
  • “having reviewed all the relevant studies regarding Plavix, he believes – even now – that prescribing Plavix to [plaintiff] was the most appropriate medical therapy.” Id. at *21.

We’ve seen testimony like this before and it simply makes us giddy. It means that there is no causal nexus between any alleged inadequate warning and plaintiff’s injuries. If the prescriber was aware of the risk and prescribed anyway – no causation. If the prescriber, knowing the current state of the scientific information, would still prescribe – no causation. No causation, no causation, no causation. We just love the way that sounds.

But plaintiff wasn’t going down without at least some fight. He proffered an expert opinion on the adequacy of the warning. His expert opined that defendant failed to warn about the lack of studies evaluating the use of Plavix for greater than one year. Id. at *19. But the court found that was sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Defendant wasn’t arguing the sufficiency of the warning but rather whether the prescriber would have prescribed even when provided with the most current research and labeling. Id. at *19-20. So, at oral argument, plaintiff tried to change weapons by arguing that his expert’s report called into question the prescriber’s credibility.

To make this argument, plaintiff relied on an old New York case that held that prescriber testimony similar to the testimony here was insufficient for resolving the issue of proximate cause because the doctor had a been a defendant in the case and since the testimony was not “self-disserving” the doctor’s credibility was in doubt and therefore was an issue for the jury. Id. at *24. But as the court pointed out – the prescriber here wasn’t a defendant. “[W]hen the treating physician is not a defendant, but rather a disinterested witness, the same concern regarding credibility is not present.” Id. at *25. Unfortunately, there are two decisions from the Southern District of New York and the Second Circuit that without explanation extend the concept of “self-disserving” to testimony of treaters who were not defendants. See id. at *22-25. Fortunately, this judge was more thoughtful in her analysis and, like a federal-judge sitting in diversity should be – was unwilling to enlarge state law. The court found no New York cases endorsing the Second Circuit’s decision but found decisions by New York’s highest court granting summary judgment relying on unrebutted doctor testimony. Id. at *27. The court also offered an important observation about the cases relied on by plaintiff:

Importantly, if I were to follow [the Second Circuit], summary judgment would never be granted in these types of cases, because a third-party prescriber’s testimony would always be subject to doubt, unless the prescriber testified he or she would not have prescribed the drug. Such a one-sided result for a disinterested physician’s testimony cannot be correct.

Id. at *25. We agree wholeheartedly.

So, the doctor’s credibility isn’t in question simply because his testimony isn’t “self-disserving.” That left plaintiff to argue that the prescriber wasn’t credible because he didn’t agree with plaintiff’s expert. Plaintiff’s expert opined that defendant should have warned about the lack of long-term safety and efficacy studies and because the prescriber didn’t have such studies while he was prescribing, his testimony wasn’t credible. The court found the argument “wholly without merit.” Id. at *28-29. Most importantly, plaintiff never questioned the prescriber at this deposition on this issue. Id. at *29. Probably because he didn’t think he’d like the answer. The doctor did testify about various studies he read and relied on and each of those studies reported on the duration. So he was both aware of the length of those studies and the lack of any longer studies and that did not change his prescribing decision. Id. at *30.

The bottom line is that plaintiff didn’t refute any of the prescriber’s testimony. In other words, plaintiff did not meet his burden of proving that a different warning would have altered the doctor’s decision to prescribe. In fact, the only evidence in the case is that the doctor was fully aware of the risk when he prescribed and prescribed anyway. Under New York law, the prescriber’s independent knowledge of the risk is an intervening event that precludes manufacturer liability regardless of the adequacy of the warning. Id. at *30-31.

Plaintiff also brought a design defect claim, but the court found it was no different than his failure to warn claim and in addition to failing for all the same reasons, also ruled that under New York law a design defect claim can’t be based on failure to warn alone. Id. at *36.

Summary judgment wins in Plavix cases are hardly anything new. Take a look at our prior posts here and here. But, it’s been a few years since the last wave and maybe Armantrout is the start of another round of dismissals. Given the well-known risk at issue, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more Plavix cases fail under the learned intermediary doctrine based on very similar testimony.

We write this in the first minutes of the eclipse, about 75 minutes from whatever “totality” will be visible here in southeastern Pennsylvania. We have our certified safety glasses at the ready, we have instructed the midday dog-walker to keep the Drug and Device Law Little Shaggy Rescues indoors (lest they unwittingly look skyward), and we have a continuous loop of the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius” going around in our head. (Parenthetically, we accidentally typed “Fifth Amendment” just then for the name of the band.) The song has nothing to do with the eclipse, but it talks about the moon. And about Jupiter aligning with Mars. Appropriately thematic, we thought.

And, while “love steering the stars” may be a little strong to describe recent activity in Risperdal litigation, we have been pleased by a recent spate of positive developments. Last week, Bexis reported on two favorable decisions out of federal courts, one a post-BMS personal jurisdiction denial and the second a refusal to consolidate dissimilar cases for trial. Today we round out the triumvirate with a nice summary judgment decision from Pennsylvania’s state court system.

In In re: Risperdal Litigation: P.D. v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 231 (July 26, 2017), the (male) plaintiff allegedly developed gynecomastia – excessive breast tissue – when he was prescribed Risperdal (beginning when he was eight years old). He sued, including claims for design defect, failure to warn, and fraud. The defendant won summary judgment. The published decision occurs in a peculiar posture that is a creature of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure. Under Pa. R.A.P. 1025, when a grant of summary judgment is appealed, the trial judge prepares a written opinion in support of affirmance, arguing that there were adequate grounds for the summary judgment decision.

Design Defect

First, the court addressed the plaintiff’s design defect claims sounding in both strict liability and negligence. Because there were unresolved choice-of-law issues, the court considered these claims under the laws of both North Carolina, where the plaintiff was prescribed Risperdal and developed gynecomastia, and Pennsylvania, the forum state. Both states prohibit strict liability design defect claims against pharmaceutical manufacturers. While Pennsylvania, since Lance v. Wyeth, permits claims for negligent design defect, “a drug manufacturer can shield itself from liability for the design of drugs by including appropriate warnings; however, when it becomes known that a drug should not be used in light of the relative risks, the manufacturer can only avoid liability by removing it from the market.” P.D., 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 231 at *8-9. Here, the plaintiff did not offer “any evidence that Risperdal was so dangerous no warning could mitigate the relative risk of gynecomastia.” To prevail on a negligent design defect claim under North Carolina law, the plaintiff was required to submit evidence of a safer alternative design, and he had not “even address[ed] this requirement . . . , let alone submit evidence of a safer alternative design for Risperdal.” Id., at *9. As such, the court held, the plaintiff’s negligent design defect claims also failed under either body of applicable law.

Failure to Warn

The court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s warnings claims rested on a finding that the plaintiff had not met his burden, under either North Carolina law or Pennsylvania law, of proving “warnings causation;” in other words, he had not proven that any alleged inadequacy of the product’s warnings was causally related to the his injury. We love this doctrine, because a successful argument can turn on the opportunistic exploitation of a plaintiff’s lawyer’s failure to ask a single question when deposing the plaintiff’s prescribing physicians.

The plaintiff’s warnings expert opined that the 2006 Risperdal label, in effect when the drug was prescribed for the plaintiff, should have included: 1) a recommendation for physicians to monitor prolactin levels; and 2) an indication that there was a statistically significant association between Risperdal use and gynecomastia. Id. at *12. But, as the court explained, “[a]lthough the parties deposed Plaintiff’s prescribing physicians, neither party elicited any testimony from [the doctors] concerning whether [the expert’s] proposed warnings . . . would have affected their prescribing decision.” Id. And so, the court concluded, “In light of the dearth of testimony from his prescribing physicians that [the expert’s] proposed warnings would have changed their prescribing decision, Plaintiff failed to establish proximate causation.” Id. (citation omitted).

The plaintiff attempted to save his warnings claim by arguing that the defendant engaged in illegal off-label promotion. The court held that, because the plaintiff was in an indicated population and was prescribed the drug for an indicated use, any discussion of off-label promotion was irrelevant to the case.

Fraud

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the court erred in dismissing his fraud claim. Again the court considered this claim under both North Carolina law and Pennsylvania law. Federal courts have interpreted Pennsylvania law as ‘barring [fraud claims]against pharmaceutical manufacturers.” Id. at *18 (citations omitted). Pennsylvania appellate courts have not addressed this issue. North Carolina law permits such claims, but not “where the purported misrepresentation was made solely to a third party.” Id. (citations omitted). “Because . . . neither Plaintiff nor Plaintiff’s mother relied on any representation” from the defendant in deciding whether to use the drug, “Plaintiff’s fraud claim must fail under North Carolina law.” Id.

The parties agreed that, where a true conflict of law existed, North Carolina law would apply, as that state, where the Plaintiff ingested the drug and developed gynecomastia, had a greater interest in the application of its law than did Pennsylvania, the forum state. “Ultimately,” the court held,

[I]t is immaterial whether Pennsylvania law permits a fraud claim in pharmaceutical cases. Assuming, arguendo, that Pennsylvania permits [such a claim], then Pennsylvania law conflicts with North Carolina law and North Carolina law would apply. Conversely, if Pennsylvania law prohibits such a claim, then Pennsylvania law applies. In either scenario, Plaintiff’s fraud claims would be dismissed.

Id. at *19.

We love a good summary judgment decision.  P.D. is sound and well-supported, and we trust that it will be affirmed on appeal. We will keep you posted. In the meantime, the [very cool] eclipse has come and gone. In the words of the Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine!”

 

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

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

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

  1.  Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

                        Adequacy of Label Warnings

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

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

            Warnings Causation 

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

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

  1.  Motion for New Trial 

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

Mother’s Testimony

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

“Top 3” Opinion 

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

Improper Comments in Plaintiff’s Closing Argument 

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

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

 

We have offered our view that cases seeking to impose liability based on well-known risks found with an entire class of prescription medications tend to be weak.  We think design defect claims usually are clearly preempted in this context and warnings claims will often be preempted too, even with Levine’s high “clear evidence” hurdle.  Cases about thrombotic risks with hormonal contraceptives have featured prominently in such posts, like this opus, precisely because design is not the issue and FDA has long been intimately involved with labeling of these products.

Another obvious fertile ground for preemption has been with gastrointestinal bleeding with anticoagulants, something of the therapeutic flip side to the risk of thrombosis.  First, it is a well-known issue.  Our quick PubMed searches easily got us to articles about this from the 1950s.  Second, this risk has been described in drug labels for a long time.  We easily found this as the first warning in prescription labels as early as 1998, although we suspect they had been around for a few decades by that point.  Third, this risk has been seen with every anticoagulant since there have been anticoagulants.  We have no doubt that any anticoagulant drug coming to market gets a thorough review of its bleeding risk and its labeling about that risk by FDA.  This surely includes attention to any differences in the labeling of the different anticoagulants and whether any post-approval studies or adverse events merit changes.  These facts should make it hard to articulate, let alone prove, a design defect claim that gets by Bartlett or a warning claim that gets by Levine, unless Buckman gets ignored.

We say “should,” but, in all fairness, it certainly depends on where the case is and who is deciding it.  Even in the nascent era of drug and device product liability litigation where cases should pretty much be in federal court unless they are in state court in the defendant’s true home state, the court can be all but determinative of the decisions on litigation-altering issues.  The selection of court can, in turn, depend on the selection of the MDL’s home in litigations where the lawyer advertising drums up enough cases to get the JPML’s attention.  We were going to contrast cases decided by different MDL courts overseeing product liability litigation over the bleeding risk of relatively new prescription anticoagulants.  Instead, we will be discussing one decision addressing allegations we think are pretty typical of what is getting offered up elsewhere and our dear readers can draw their own conclusions.

Fortner v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., No. 17cv1562 (DLC), MDL No. 2754, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117030 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2017), comes out of the Eliquis MDL.  Based on the JPML’s statistics, when decided, there were 23 pending cases out of a total of 69 ever-filed cases in this relatively young MDL.  The drug was approved in 2012 with extensive warnings about the risk of bleeding.  Plaintiffs in the MDL offered various allegations about how the drug was defectively designed because it had a clotting risk, was not accompanied by a drug-specific clotting test, was not accompanied by an “antidote,” and was to be taken twice a day.  These same criticisms were offered as warnings claims, but there were no allegations that the manufacturer had received post-approval safety information triggering some alleged duty to try to change any aspect of the label through the CBE process.  The manufacturers challenged whether these allegations stated any state law claim that was not preempted and, before there was even an MDL established, dismissed a number of cases without prejudice in Utts I, which we discussed here.  After the MDL was established, the plaintiffs got another shot with amended complaints and still came up short in Utts II, this time with prejudice.  The court, in an exercise of magnanimity, invited the remaining plaintiffs to see if they could come up with complaints that stated a non-preempted claim.  That is how we get to Fortner, who alleged a variety of claims under Tennessee law based on the same allegations about the drug, manufacturers, and FDA that most of the remaining plaintiffs apparently offered.

As is often the case with pleading around statutes of limitation—complaints with dates for everything but when plaintiff’s alleged injury occurred—it looks like the fourth attempt at a complaint was modified to be vague, repeating allegations “in less detail and without identifying or appending the specific studies from which these allegations are drawn.” Id. at *7.  The Fortner court saw through this “pleading tactic” of “masking the basis for her claim”:  The complaint’s “claims do not become more plausible simply because the plaintiff has omitted from the FAC the sources upon which her conclusory factual allegations are based.” Id. at **7-8.  Well stated and clearly correct, but many courts let uncertainty work to the plaintiff’s advantage in this posture, despite TwIqbal’s requirement of factual allegations that plausibly state a claim.

The critical aspect of Fortner’s approach is that the court required the plaintiff to plead a warning claim based on “sufficient factual content to support a plausible inference that there exists newly acquired information such that the defendants could unilaterally have changed the Eliquis label to include additional warnings.” Id. at *8.  This, in turn, flowed from the court’s prior decisions holding that “post-approval failure to warn claims are preempted unless the plaintiff can plausibly allege that there existed ‘newly acquired information’ such that, pursuant to the Changes Being Effected (‘CBE’) regulation, the defendants could independently have updated the Eliquis label to include such warnings.” Id. at *5.  There is no such thing as a pre-approval warning claim—absent an allegation that the launch label resulted from fraud-on-the-FDA that side-stepped Buckman—so this is a pretty good statement of what a non-preempted prescription drug warnings claim should allege.

By contrast, under the court’s prior analysis, there is no such thing as a non-preempted post-approval design defect claim because “FDA regulations prohibit a change of the type implicated by the claim.” Id. Here, the first urged defect was twice daily dosing—which is a design issue if the plaintiff alleges the product should have been designed to deliver the effective dose by taking it once a day, for instance, and something that clearly cannot be changed without a new NDA.  The other urged defects are things we see as more labeling than design issues—lack of a drug-specific clotting test or an “antidote” to the drug that could be recommended or sold with the drug.  Even if such a test or antidote existed, it could not be sold with the drug based on anything the manufacturer could have done independent of FDA action.  In reaffirming its prior decision on the preemption of pre-approval design defect claims, the Fortner court noted that Yates was the only appellate court to address the issue and no binding authority disagrees with its analysis.

Based on a trio of preemption rulings at the pleading stage, it looks like the Eliquis MDL will be short lived.  That is not always the case with MDL proceedings based on dubious claims, where the burden of one-sided discovery and the weight of the docket tend to dictate the result more than anything approaching the merits.  In terms of issues that seem as obvious to us as preemption of pre-market prescription drug design defect—we note that “duh” and “no duh” mean the same thing, like “regardless” and “irregardless” or “flammable” and “inflammable”—it will help to have more appellate courts follow Yates.

 

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

Usually when we are talking about Michigan, it’s to praise the Michigan Products Liability Act which cuts off civil liability for drug manufacturers “if the drug was approved for safety and efficacy by the United States food and drug administration, and the drug and its labeling were in compliance with the United States food and drug administration’s approval at the time the drug left the control of the manufacturer or seller.” M.C.L. § 600.2946(5). However, under Michigan law, the distinction between a drug and a device is significant. That is because device manufacturers are not afforded the same immunity. See M.C.L. § 600.2945(b).  Of course, device manufacturers do have the broad preemption provided by the Medical Device Amendments. See Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312, 317 (2008). So it’s somewhat rare to get to post on a Michigan law case that isn’t focused on the statute or preemption, but we found one – Avendt v. Covidien, Inc., 2017 WL 2868487 (E.D. Mich. Jul. 5, 2017).

Avendt involves a biologic (as opposed to synthetic) mesh product that was used by plaintiff’s surgeon in plaintiff’s hernia repair surgery. Plaintiff suffered complications following surgery, including an infection and chronic non-healing wound that required multiple revision surgeries and eventual removal of the product. Id. at *1. The biologic mesh product at issue was approved by the FDA via the 510(k) substantial equivalence process. It was cleared to market for use only in “Class I/Clean wounds.” Id. at *17. Plaintiff did not dispute that his wound was Class I and clean, in other words this is an on-label use case. Id. at *19.   In addition, the product’s labeling contained a warning that the mesh could weaken or breakdown if used in a contaminated or infected wound or if exposed to “high concentrations of digestive enzymes.” Id. at *17.

Against this background, plaintiff filed suit alleging that defendant’s product was defective due to failure to test and subsequent failure to warn. Id. at *1. More specifically, plaintiff argued that defendant’s insufficient testing led it to market the product as a “biologic mesh,” when in fact it performs like a synthetic mesh which was the characteristic of the product that led to plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at *22.

In support of his claim, plaintiff disclosed only one expert, Dr. Michael J. Rosen. Dr. Rosen was plaintiff’s treating surgeon who performed the surgery removing the mesh. Plaintiff opted not to have Dr. Rosen prepare a full Rule 26 expert report, the consequences of which were that he would be limited to testifying as a treating physician and so only permitted to testify as to those opinions that were formed “for purposes of, and within the scope of, his care and treatment of [plaintiff].” Id. at *2. Most of Dr. Rosen’s opinions were not.

For example, Dr. Rosen’s opinion that the mesh was unsafe for use in Class I wound was excluded as not being related to his care and treatment of the plaintiff. That may have been an opinion he held at the time he treated plaintiff, but it was not formed for the purpose of or within the scope of his care and treatment of plaintiff. Id. at *23. He had no reason to form a safety opinion to care for and treat plaintiff and he didn’t include any such opinion in his medical records or in any discussion with plaintiff or any of his colleagues. Id. Moreover, Dr. Rosen did not report plaintiff’s case to the FDA as an adverse event. Id. Dr. Rosen’s opinions on the sufficiency of the testing and adequacy of the warning suffered the same fate – to even be considered potentially admissible Dr. Rosen needed to prepare a proper Rule 26 expert report “setting forth the scientific or experiential basis” of his theories. Id. at *25.

But that wasn’t the only fatal flaw for Dr. Rosen’s opinions. His opinions were also unsupported. Unlike his litigation opinion that defendant’s biologic mesh was unsafe for Class I wounds, Dr. Rosen had opined in numerous peer-reviewed articles that defendant’s product was acceptable in that precise situation. Id. at *23-24. The blatant contradiction was another ground for exclusion. Id. at *25. These same peer-reviewed publications also discussed the need for further study of the biologic mesh for treating Class II and III wounds, but nowhere suggested that further testing was needed regarding treatment of Class I wounds such as plaintiffs. So, Dr. Rosen’s opinions on adequate testing were also unsupported. Id. at *26.

As to the adequacy of the warning, plaintiff argued that the product’s labeling should have included a warning to remove the mesh in the event of a seroma (what plaintiff had) or an infection. Id. Dr. Rosen, however, could only opine that “there should be more information” about the types of cases for which the mesh should be used. Id.  That was not enough to clear plaintiff’s hurdle of proving as a matter of law that defendant had a duty to warn. Id. Moreover, as noted above, the label did warn about weakening and breakdown – the very side effects plaintiff suffered. Id.

Finally, Dr. Rosen also offered an opinion on causation. He testified that he saw the mesh “sitting on a bed of pus,” removed it, and concluded that the mesh caused the infection because the infection cleared up after removal. Id. at *29. The court didn’t question that Dr. Rosen knew an infection when he saw it.  But “the ability to diagnose medical conditions is not remotely the same … as the ability to deduce … in a scientifically reliable manner, the causes of those medical conditions.” Id. (citation omitted). Bottom line – nowhere in his opinion did Dr. Rosen rule out the other potential causes of plaintiff’s infection and failure to heal; such as his diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, and use of immunosuppressants. Id. *29-30.

But Dr. Rosen wasn’t the only problem with plaintiff’s case. Plaintiff’s failure to warn claim also failed for lack of causation. First, the learned intermediary doctrine applies to a medical device. Id. at *21-22. So any duty to warn ran to plaintiff’s surgeon. Second, there was no evidence that plaintiff’s surgeon read the product’s labeling. Id. at *29.   He had not met with the defendant’s representative, had not read the instructions for use, and had not read any of the literature about the product. Under this circumstance, no additional or different warning would have made a difference because the doctor wouldn’t have seen it. No failure to warn.

Defendant also had no duty to conduct a randomized prospective clinical trial before marketing the product. There was no evidence that such a clinical trial was the standard of care for 510k mesh products at the time defendant’s product was approved. Id. at *27.

Plaintiff paid dearly for failing to serve a Rule 26 expert report for their sole medical expert, although it appears that even with a report very little of what their expert was offered to opine on would have been admissible under Daubert anyway. And with no causal nexus between the doctor and the warning, plaintiff’s failure to warn claim was dubious regardless of whether the expert testimony was admissible or not. While any one of these things would have sunk the case, we’re glad the court explored them all. The opinion is loaded with good precedent.

One of the (many) things that made last year’s decision in Barron v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., ___ S.W.3d ___, 2016 WL 6596091 (Mo. App. Nov. 8, 2016), so hideous that it weighed in at #3 of our worst decisions of the year was that, virtually without discussion, it held that an FDA-approved black box warning was not only inadequate but so poor as to be worthy of punitive damages.  Id. at *7.  Fortunately the Missouri Supreme Court granted a transfer (on January 5, 2017, according to Westlaw) and (we hope) will restore sanity on at least some of the issues in Barron.  However, the mere fact that a boxed warning – the strongest FDCA warning there is – could be utterly disregarded as in Barron got us thinking.

How have courts treated boxed warnings in other inadequate warning cases?

Initially, we’re not dealing in this post with claims that, in order to be adequate, a defendant’s labeling should have included a boxed warning. We’ve dealt with that kind of claim elsewhere, and our position is that, since the FDA must pre-approve all boxed warnings, all “should have added” claims are preempted.  This post deals with prescription medical products that already have boxed warnings.  Preemption becomes an issue in existing black box cases only if the plaintiff claims that the black box should have been changed – since (as discussed in the posts linked to previously) changes to black box warnings require prior FDA approval.

Looking back through our posts, we see we’ve described one decision, Hain v. Johnson & Johnson, No. ATL-L-8568-11 MT, slip op. (N.J. Super. L.D. June 20, 2013), reaching such a result. Hain recognized that “[a] ‘black box’ warning is the strongest warning required by the FDA.”  Id. at 6 (citing 21 C.F.R. §201.57(c)(1).  Regardless of what might be the case with other, similar products:

[B]y mandating each manufacturer include the strongest type of warning possible to warn of [the risk at issue], the FDA ensured each prescriber’s attention would be focused on the risk. . . .  [A] boxed warning required by the FDA existed in the package insert at the time [plaintiff] ingested [the drug].  Courts have previously held prescription warning labels containing a boxed warning, mandated by the FDA, are adequate as a matter of law.

Id. at 7.

In In re Chantix (Varenicline) Products Liability Litigation, 881 F. Supp.2d 1333 (N.D. Ala. 2012), the primary authority cited in Hain, the court determined that under the law of any state in the country, an on-point black box warning was adequate as a matter of law.  Such a warning was “the highest level warning possible, prominently displayed at the beginning of a drug’s official prescribing information.”  881 F. Supp.2d at 1339.  There could be no doubt that such a warning “was sufficient to alert to the possibility of the harm actually suffered.” Id. at 1340.  Plaintiff’s quibbles about when the drug should be used failed because they sought to tell physicians how to practice medicine.  “[T]he decision as to use [of] a medication as a first-line treatment is uniquely up to the prescribing medical professional and based on a decision concerning his or her individual patient.  Id.

Unlike the majority of cases reviewed by this court, the plaintiffs seek to pursue their failure to warn claims post the 2009 black box warning, not for failing to warn of possible complications from [the drug], but for failing to tell physicians when to prescribe it. . . .  [Even] the plaintiffs recognize that a black box warning is “the most serious warning in the FDA’s arsenal”. . . .  For the foregoing reasons, the court finds the 2009 black box warning adequate as a matter of law.

Id. at 1342-43 (citation omitted).  Accord In re Chantix (Varenicline) Products Liability Litigation, 889 F. Supp.2d 1272, 1304 (N.D. Ala. 2012) (“the court finds that [the] black box warning is adequate as a matter of law”).

Similarly, in Christison v. Biogen Idec, Inc., 199 F. Supp.3d 1315 (D. Utah 2016), the court held that a boxed warning of a usually fatal condition was adequate to warn physicians of that risk as a matter of law:

[I]t is undisputed that as a condition of [the drug’s] re-approval . . . the FDA required that the prescribing information contain a “black box” warning about [the risk] which is the strongest warning  required or permitted by FDA.  The black box warning, as the most serious warning available, can be reasonably expected to catch the attention of the consumer. . . .  [T]he intensity of the warning matched the magnitude of the risk.  The black box warning . . . was not qualified or minimized in any way because the magnitude of the risk − death or severe disability − was of the highest possible degree.

Id. at 1343-44 (footnotes omitted).  Accord Amos v. Biogen Idec, Inc., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1316968, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. April 10, 2017) (adequacy as a matter of law; the drug’s “label contained this information in a black box warning, the strongest warning available”); Gentile v. Biogen Idec, Inc., 33 Mass. L. Rptr. 607, 2016 WL 4168942, at *6 (Mass. Super. July 28, 2016) (“[t]he black box warning in effect when [the prescriber] first prescribed [the drug] to [plaintiff’s decedent] explicitly warned against the precise risk . . . that [she] ultimately suffered, and fully disclosed the serious consequences of that disease”).

In Aaron v. Wyeth, 2010 WL 653984 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2010), the product’s black box warning “advised physicians of the specific risks at issue in the instant case,” thus the court found “no evidence that [defendant] breached its duty to exercise reasonable care to inform [the prescriber] and others similarly situated of the risks associated with” taking the drug in question, even though the prescriber testified that he did not remember the warning correctly.  Id. at *10.  In Whiteside v. Johnson & Johnson, 2015 WL 11120989 (Mag. N.D. Tex. Mar. 13, 2015), adopted, 2015 WL 11120990 (N.D. Tex. July 8, 2015), the court dismissed the action with prejudice when the plaintiff abandoned ship in the face of the defendant’s summary judgment motion.  The court noted that the “Plaintiff’s prescription postdat[ing] . . . Defendants’ addition of an adequate ‘black box’ warning about the risks associated with the drug in question . . . would be fatal to Plaintiff’s claims.”  Id. at *1 n.1. See also Holland v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 2007 WL 4042757, at *2-3 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 15, 2007) (black box warning held adequate as a matter of law; Texas presumption unrebutted); Clark v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 2006 WL 1374516, at *7 (N.J. Super. May 2, 2006) (boxed warning “satisfied [defendant’s] burden under either New Jersey or Utah law to provide an adequate warning with respect to the risks” at issue); cf. In re Actos (Pioglitazone) Products Liability Litigation, 2014 WL 4364832, at *34 (W.D. La. Sept. 2, 2014) (characterizing post-prescription boxed warning as “hav[ing] full and adequate warnings”).

In a couple hours of looking we found more than a half-dozen cases where boxed warnings were held adequate as a matter of law.  Thus any court “unaware of any court holding that such a [boxed] warning is per se adequate as a matter of law,” Hutchens v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., 2016 WL 5661582, at *6 (N.D. Ohio Sept. 30, 2016), either didn’t look very hard, or wasn’t willing to accept what it found.

In our view, the bottom line with boxed warnings is: one, the presence of a boxed warning concerning the relevant risk of a prescription medical product demonstrates that the risk is adequately warned about and sufficiently emphasized, making the warning adequate as a matter of law; and in any event two, since the FDA controls the content of black box warnings, any allegations that existing boxed warnings are inadequate are necessarily preempted.

Finally, some good news out of California – at least when personal jurisdiction isn’t the issue.

Design and warning defects were the questions presented in Trejo v. Johnson & Johnson, ___ Cal. Rptr.3d ___, 2017 WL 2825803 (Cal. App. June 30, 2017), and the result, particularly on the design side, was much more to our liking.

Indeed, there may well not have been post-BMS personal jurisdiction in Trejo either, since the plaintiffs were Hondurans injured in Honduras.  It’s not clear from the opinion where the drug at issue – an over-the-counter (“OTC”) ibuprofen-based pain relief medication – was purchased.  Somewhere in the United States, we gather, and it was then sent as a “care package” to the purchaser’s Honduran relatives.  Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *2.

The drug was eventually taken, in Honduras, by someone other than its intended user, and that person, the eventual plaintiff, subsequently suffered Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (“SJS”), a nasty condition that we’ve encountered frequently on this blog.  This particular exercise in litigation tourism was quite initially successful.  A jury awarded over $50 million (including $15 million in punitive damages), finding for plaintiff on negligent failure to warn, negligent design, and strict liability design defect under the so-called “consumer expectation” test and the risk-benefit test.  The defendant “won” (if you could call it that) on strict liability warning defect and design defect under the “risk/utility” test. Id. at *5.  California not only allows plaintiffs two bites at the warning apple on separate negligence and strict liability theories, but three bites at the design apple under separate negligence, strict liability/consumer expectation design defect, and strict liability/risk/utility design defect theories.  No wonder plaintiffs flock to the state.

On appeal, however, the plaintiff in Trejo lost it all.

The design defect rulings are the most significant for the rest of us.

First, Trejo becomes the fourth appellate court to hold that the impossibility preemption rationale of Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013), and PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011), applies generally, and it not limited to generic drugs – the others being Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 822 F.3d 680, 703-04 (3d Cir. 2016) (airplanes); Yates v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 808 F.3d 281, 298 (6th Cir., 2015) (branded drugs), and In re Celexa & Lexapro Marketing & Sales Practices Litigation, 779 F.3d 34, 41 (1st Cir. 2015) (branded drugs). Trejo joins Sikkelee and Yates in applying Mensing/Bartlett to design defects.  And Trejo is the first appellate decision to apply Mensing/Bartlett specifically to OTC drugs.

This is a good direction for the law to be moving. No appellate court has held that Mensing/Bartlett is limited to design defects in generic drugs.

Here’s what the unanimous Second District Cal. App. panel in Trejo had to say about preemption:

While the FDCA contains an express preemption provision concerning OTC drugs (21 U.S.C. §379r) – with a great big exception that exempts “product liability” claims from preemption – express and implied preemption operate independently.  Thus the savings clause for “product liability” doesn’t preclude implied preemption where product liability claims are in conflict with federal law.  Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *23 (“[t]he savings clause does not foreclose the possibility that conflict preemption may arise from federal sources other than . . . §379r”).

Plaintiff’s design defect claim was that the defendant shouldn’t have used ibuprofen at all, but rather dexibuprofen, an isomer of the drug in question, “even though the FDA has not approved dexibuprofen for sale in the United States.” Id. at *5.  That’s right – plaintiff articulated a blatant stop-selling claim of the sort Bartlett had held preempted, and the Court of Appeal called “barnyard expletive” on plaintiff’s tortured argument otherwise:

[Plaintiff] asserts that he did not argue that defendants “should have withdrawn [the drug] from the marketplace, or should have never sold it in the first place.”  This argument is merely a matter of semantics. No matter how plaintiff words his argument, the claim that defendants failed to sell dexibuprofen instead of ibuprofen requires the claim that defendants should have withdrawn [the drug] from the market because defendants could not have changed the active ingredient of [the drug] without undergoing an entirely new FDA drug application process.

Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *21 n.20 (emphasis added).

The Bartlettindependence principle” also required preemption.  It was impossible for the defendant to do what plaintiff contended state law required (materially change the drug’s design) immediately because material design changes to OTC (and all) drugs (and medical devices) require the prior review by and approval of the FDA.  “[F]ederal law prohibited the manufacturer from taking the remedial action required to avoid liability under [state] law.”  Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *25 (quoting Bartlett, 133 S. Ct. at 2476).  That ruling applied to all drugs:

Consistent with our conclusion that the savings clause . . . does not prevent the applicability of ordinary preemption principles in the nonprescription drug context, we agree . . . that Bartlett’s holding is not limited to prescription drugs.

Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *25 (emphasis added).  The FDCA did not permit the defendant to substitute freely one active ingredient for another.  “Dexibuprofen therefore would be a new drug, requiring a new drug application.”  Id.

[F]ederal law prohibited defendants from changing the design of [the drug] by selling dexibuprofen without prior FDA approval.  Defendants accordingly could not have avoided design defect liability without violating federal law.  “FDA regulations provide that once a drug, whether generic or brand-name, is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to the qualitative or quantitative formulation of the drug product.”

Id. (quoting and following Yates, 808 F.3d at 298).

Preemption applied because the defendant could not have acted “unilaterally” to make the design change purportedly required by state product liability law – whether design defect is measured by consumer expectation or risk/utility:

Thus, under federal law [citations omitted] defendants could not unilaterally change the chemical composition of [the drug] from ibuprofen to dexibuprofen in order to satisfy consumer expectations or to increase the benefits or decrease the risks of [the drug].  Nor could they be required to stop selling [the drug] in order to avoid state liability.  Plaintiff’s design defect claim accordingly is preempted.

Id. at *26 (Bartlett citations omitted) (after quoting from a half-dozen cases listed in our post-Levine drug preemption cheat sheet).

Moreover, after trying the case as a straight-forward “you should have designed the product differently” claim, plaintiff could not attempt to convert it to some kind of quasi-warning-based case.  Plaintiff had a real warning claim (which we’ll get to) and couldn’t convert one possible design related factor (presence of warnings) into the whole design ball of wax to avoid preemption after having tried a different case to the jury.  Id.

But there’s more on design first.

Second, as we mentioned, California allows plaintiffs generally to prosecute design defect claims on either a consumer expectation or risk/utility theory of liability.  Not anymore in prescription medical product cases after Trejo.  Trejo also held, quite apart from preemption, that the consumer expectation theory was inapplicable to complicated products such as OTC drugs – and thus, we would argue, a fortiori would be inapplicable to prescription medical products.

The consumer expectation test is only appropriate for products that “everyday experience” allows consumers generally to have safety expectations about:

[T]he consumer expectations test is reserved for cases in which the everyday experience of the product’s users permits a conclusion that the product’s design violated minimum safety assumptions, and is thus defective regardless of expert opinion about the merits of the design.

Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *27 (quoting Soule v. General Motors Corp., 882 P.2d 298, 308 (Cal. 1994)) (emphasis original).  OTC drugs – let alone prescription products – aren’t that.  Plaintiff tried the case with expert witnesses, which is a no-no under the consumer expectation theory.  That plaintiff did so demonstrated the theory’s inapplicability.

The circumstances of [the drug’s] failure involve technical details and expert testimony regarding the effect of the product upon an individual plaintiff’s health, and the ultimate question of whether [the drug] was defectively designed calls for a careful assessment of feasibility, practicality, risk, and benefit.

Id. at *30 (citations and quotation marks omitted).  SJS was an “unusual reaction” to the drug, thus “expert testimony was required to explain plaintiff’s theory.”  Id.  “Accordingly, we conclude that the consumer expectation test should not have been applied.”  Id.

In light of this complexity, plaintiff’s excuse for consumer expectations fell in the same barnyard as his argument against stop selling preemption.  Simply testifying that “I didn’t expect to get hurt” didn’t cut it:

Plaintiff here contends that the consumer expectation test applies because the ordinary consumer does not expect to contract SJS/TEN from taking OTC [ibuprofen].  However, it could be said that any injury from the intended or foreseeable use of a product is not expected by the ordinary consumer.  If this were the end of the inquiry, the consumer expectation test always would apply and every product would be found to have a design defect.

Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *29 (emphasis added).  A consumer cannot, by playing dumb, bootstrap himself into a consumer expectation claim.  “[T]he consumer expectation test does not apply merely because the consumer states that he or she did not expect to be injured by the product.”  Id. Admittedly, we haven’t seen that many California plaintiffs audacious (or desperate) enough to utilize consumer expectation theories against FDA-approved products; nonetheless we’re beyond pleased now to have explicit appellate authority precluding this theory of liability against our clients.

After Trejo, it becomes a lot harder for any plaintiff to pursue a design defect claim against a prescription medical product in California.  If the design considerations that go into OTC drugs are too complex and involved to allow use of the consumer expectation theory of liability, than that theory is even less available to more sophisticated prescription products whose risks and benefits are so esoteric that the FDA has concluded that they should be dispensed only after evaluation by medical doctors.  Likewise, the Mensing/Bartlett preemption rationale against design defects is equally applicable to all FDA regulated products.  Can a branded drug manufacturer change its product’s active ingredient – or any other aspect of the product that materially affects product safety?   No.  And neither can a medical device manufacturer.  Effectively, all design defect claims that could make a difference in a product liability action (that materially affect “safety”) require prior FDA review, and thus should be preempted under Trejo and the Mensing/Bartlett independence principle.

That’s still not all.  We still have Trejo’s disposition of the warning-related aspects of the verdict to discuss.

Third, the Court of Appeal unanimously held that the jury’s verdict for the defendant on strict liability warning defect was fatally inconsistent with its verdict for plaintiff on negligent failure to warn.  Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *8-14.  From a national perspective, this result is less important than the design defect aspects we just finished with, because disposition of the warning claim has to do with the interaction of California’s peculiar warning-based legal doctrines, which still attempt to maintain a difference between negligence and strict liability in the warning context.  Most other states treat them interchangeably.

It’s still important in Trejo, however.  $50 million is $50 million.

Briefly – because the whole thing reeks of hair-splitting to us – “both the strict liability and negligence theories were premised on a single alleged defect.”  Id. at *8.  “[U]nder either a negligence or a strict liability theory of products liability, to recover from a manufacturer, a plaintiff must prove that a defect caused injury.”  Id. at *6.  However, “strict liability, which was developed to ease a claimant’s burden of proof, requires proof of fewer elements than negligence.”  Id.  Thus, negligence requires “an additional element, namely, that the defect in the product was due to negligence of the defendant.”  Id.  Where (as here) the claimed defect under both theories is the same, that means that strict liability simply eliminates an necessary element, so that “a positive verdict on the latter [negligence, is] difficult to explain if strict liability cannot be found.”  Id.

Exactly that happened in Trejo, and it cost plaintiff $50 million.  It wasn’t the first time, either.  A previous decision, Valentine v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 81 Cal. Rptr. 2d 252, 262-64 (Cal. App. 1999), was directly on point, forthrightly holding that “[a]s a practical matter then, the difference in the two concepts [negligence and strict liability] is so small as to make no difference.”  Id. at 263.  The jury’s finding for the defendant on the “easier” warning defect claim was necessarily inconsistent with its finding for plaintiff on the “harder to prove” negligent warning claim.  Trejo, 2017 WL 2825803, at *14 (“The jury’s special verdict on negligent failure to warn is fatally inconsistent with its verdict on strict liability failure to warn and must be reversed.”).

Who knows what would have happened if this plaintiff had not insisted on more than one bite at the apple?  That’s what we’ll find out on retrial.  We have no idea when that might be however, since further appellate review in Trejo is certainly possible.  In this respect, we are reminded that Bartlett, like Trejo, was also an SJS case.