The order of operations can matter. Back in elementary school, you may have learned a mnemonic about somebody’s aunt to help you remember the right order for doing certain math problems. In computer programming, engineering, auto repair, surgery, and a myriad of other endeavors, you can get very different results if you take the same
In Hawaii, from whence today’s case comes, tourists are encouraged to try poi, mashed up taro root, which looks like purple wallpaper paste and tastes like, well, purple wallpaper paste. The term is also used as a friendly descriptor of ethnically ambiguous looking people, whose roots have been mashed together to form something not readily identifiable by traditional visual stereotypes. (At least it seemed friendly when we heard it applied to our own offspring.) Personally, we think it is a nice concept and the less that categorizing people to determine their rights, opportunities, and expectations happens, the better. For a number of aspects of product liability law, however, the decision on whether to proceed categorically or case-by-case is still hotly contested. This is particularly true for comment k to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 402A, which forms the meat of the decision in Segovia v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., CV. No. 15-00519 DKW-RLP, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52405 (D. Haw. Apr. 19, 2016).
Segovia involves a fatal hemorrhagic stroke with an anticoagulant prescribed and used for atrial fibrillation. We are not sure what was different from the first complaint, but the second try made vague allegations about misrepresentations to FDA and others that it was “tested and found to be safe and effective for its indicated uses” and that FDA and others had not been told of the drug’s “defects” in support of allegations of strict liability and negligent failure to warn and design defect theories. While it seems like this complaint asserted claims based on non-existent duties and clearly preempted claims, the only issues addressed by the court on the motion to dismiss were whether Hawaii law took comment k to preclude design defect claims for all prescription drugs categorically and whether any fraud-based claims had been pleaded with sufficient particularity.
As to the first question, the court did not look to our relatively recent discussions on this issue, but generally looked to older cases to find the public policy rationale for taking a case-by-case approach for prescription drugs—which was essentially determinative on a motion to dismiss. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first step was determining what Hawaii case law already said about comment k and only two cases were discussed. Larsen v. Pacesetter Sys., Inc., 837 P.2d 1273, 1286 (Haw. 1992), involved a pacemaker—not a drug—and concluded that summary judgment based on comment k was inappropriate where there was evidence that the “pacemaker was demonstrably capable of being made safe for its intended use.” Forsyth v. Eli Lilly & Co., 1998 WL 35152135, **3-4 (D. Haw. Jan. 5, 1998), involved a prescription drug, but did not decide the issue of categorical or case-by-case because a genuine issue as to the adequacy of warnings was sufficient to preclude summary judgment. Rather than view these cases are leaving the issue open, the Segovia court found “neither Larsen nor Forsythe create a blanket rule of design defect immunity for pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the Court declines to extend comment k in a fashion that the Hawaii courts themselves have thus far declined to do.” 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52405, *11. We think this misconstrues comment k, which does not provide “immunity,” and what it means to conclude that all prescription drugs are “unavoidably unsafe.”
Paradise this one isn’t.
The way we look at it the defendant got jobbed. It was a ridiculous case (at least as a product liability matter) to start with. The jury agreed and found no product defect. Then, on appeal, it turns out that the trial judge made an “error” in a jury instruction…