We’ll get to today’s case in a moment, but first, a few words about SCOTUS and expiration dates.

 
One hundred and one years ago tomorrow saw the birth of Lewis Powell, who served as a United States Supreme Court Justice from 1972 to 1987.  Powell succeeded Hugo Black.  More interesting, considering current events, is that Powell was succeeded by Anthony Kennedy. Whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh succeeds Justice Kennedy is a matter of some some controversy.  One reason for that controversy is that Justice Kennedy was often a swing vote.  In a prior post, we recounted our one close encounter with Anthony Kennedy.  He impressed us a smart jurist who was determined to do the right thing.  Still, it must have seemed somewhat vexing to SCOTUS litigants that everything likely turned on the predilections of one Justice.  The other eight Justices often seemed predictable, almost a done deal.  But Justice Kennedy, at least on some issues, was the wild card.  We have no evidence that Justice Kennedy purposely positioned himself as the swing vote, or that he reveled in his inflated importance, but his importance as a swing vote was undeniable.
 
We have also seen no evidence that Justice Kennedy patterned himself after his predecessor, but it is remarkable how similar they were in locating themselves right at the center of the Court.  Justice Powell was often a swing vote.  If our affirmative action jurisprudence is a bit of a mess, some of the blame for that must go to Justice Powell, whose controlling opinion in the 4-1-4 landmark Bakke decision created a slippery standard that sprung from Powell’s idea of the perfect academic affirmative action program – the Harvard College admissions system.  Even back in 1978, it was pretty obvious that the Harvard system was not quite the holistic, individual-respecting scheme that Powell portrayed. (The legal defense of U.Cal Davis Medical School’s affirmative action program was entrusted to the great Archibald Cox.  During oral argument, Justice Blackmun asked whether the set-aside seats could be compared to athletic scholarships.  Cox replied, “Well, I’m from Harvard … “ – laughter intervened – “I don’t know whether that’s our aim, but we don’t do it very well.”)  Given the current lawsuit challenging Harvard admission policies, the Bakke compromise and its progeny seem even more fragile.  

The story of how Powell came to be appointed to the High Court was told in Bob Woodward’s book, The Brethren. (We hear Woodward has another book out.)  President Nixon was politically hobbled in 1972.  In trying to fill an earlier SCOTUS vacancy, Nixon had two of his selections rejected by the Senate.  Powell was an interesting choice.  He was from Virginia, which fit in with Nixon’s southern strategy.  But Powell would not fit into what we now consider the usual mold.  He had never been a judge. (Black had been a senator, not a judge.  Chief Justice Warren had also been a politician.  Douglas headed the SEC. It used to be acceptable for Justices not have to have a judicial track record.  Why the change?). Powell was a corporate lawyer. He represented the tobacco industry. He was a leader in the ABA.  He wrote a famous memo about how corporate America should deal with a hostile media.  There were plenty of reasons why Nixon would have liked Powell.  But there was one important reason why Powell would be acceptable to Senators who weren’t enamored with Nixon: Powell was 64 years old.  Woodward reported that a Senator waved a cigar and told Powell why he would be confirmed: “We think you’re going to die.”  (Powell himself was not all that fired up to join SCOTUS.  He had turned down an earlier offer.  He did not think he had the constitutional law chops of a Douglas, Black, or Brennan.  Plus, he was not eager for the huge pay cut.)

Recently John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show argued for eliminating life tenure for judges.   Oliver supported a proposal for staggered 18 year terms.  (Powell served 15 years on SCOTUS.)  Every four year presidential term would include an opportunity to appoint at least two SCOTUS justices.  The system would permit reasonable turnover.  It would avoid the dangers of a gerontocracy.  It might somewhat reduce the temperature of SCOTUS confirmation hearings, since there wouldn’t be a multigenerational impact at stake.  Such a change would require a constitutional amendment.  Spoiler alert: it won’t happen.  But while we’re just dreaming, we have another reason for cuddling up to this idea.  When presidents harbor the hope of appointing a Justice who will support certain policies/rules for thirty years, that means they will select relatively young people.  That elevate-them-when-they-are-young approach also offers the advantage of proffering someone with a limited paper record and a limited target area for skeptical senators. Thus, instead of a SCOTUS appointment being the capstone of a long, distinguished career, it is more and more conferred on jurists in mid-career.  As we slouch toward dotage, we less and less like the idea of such important jobs going to juveniles.  Frankly, we hate seeing presidents and Supreme Court Justices younger than ourselves.  It is an annoyance almost as painful as being forced by some website to enter our birth year in a drop down menu, and scrolling down and down.  And down. 
[Quick quiz: Which Supreme Court Justice served the longest term?  Answer below.]

Why are we pondering these issues at this moment?  Obviously, the ongoing Kavanaugh kerfuffle is top of mind.  We also find ourselves ruing life tenure when we read a judicial decision that seems gruesomely wrong-headed.

And now we get to today’s case.  
 
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In Sumpter v. Allergan Inc., 2018 WL 4335519 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 11, 2018), the plaintiff brought suit over ruptured silicone breast implants.  The implants were premarket approval (PMA) medical devices.  As the Sumpter court acknowledges, the Medical Device Amendments Act “preempts claims challenging the safety and effectiveness of … PMA devices.”  Federal law dislodges any state laws (including via jury verdicts) that are “different from, or in addition to, any requirement applicable under [federal law].”  In the face of this rather clear preemption, the plaintiff in Sumpter ditched her design defect and failure to warn claims.  All that was left was the claim for manufacturing defect.  And here begins the Sumpter court’s descent into sheer awfulness.  As a preliminary matter, the Sumpter court tells us that, “[g]enerally, manufacturing defect claims that allege the ‘manufacturer failed to adhere to the specifications imposed by a device’s PMA’ are not preempted at the pleading stage.”  That quote is from the 2009 Hofts decision out of the Southern District of Indiana.  More than once, this blog has derided Hofts for its mangling of Riegel and Twombly and Iqbal.  Hofts made our list of the ten worst decisions of 2009.  Most courts that have considered Hofts have rejected it.  But not the Sumpter court.  If anything, Sumpter manages to multiply Hoft’s errors.  First, the plaintiff, as is all too typical, never comes close to specifying what the manufacturing defect was.  Second, the Sumpter court’s standard for assessing what constitutes a manufacturing defect is altogether wrongheaded.  A manufacturing defect happens when the product is out of spec from its design,  Something about the particular product is different from a product that is manufactured correctly.  Maybe something is in there that shouldn’t be, or something is missing.  Ot a component was flawed.  But that is not the Sumpter court’s test.  No, the Sumpter court concludes that a claim for manufacturing defect will lie when plaintiffs say that the products differed from the “intended result.”  What does that mean?  Presumably, a case was brought because someone was injured.  That is never the “intended result.”  Does “intended result” end up requiring a perfection that exists nowhere in the law, on any assembly line, in any product portfolio, or, indeed, on our planet? Moreover, the mere existence of a malfunction cannot, by itself, give rise to an inference that the manufacturer violated the FDCA.  Where is there any basis to invoke the infernal Riegel “parallel violation”?  Through the Sumpter looking-glass, every product liability case contains a manufacturing defect claim destined for a jury.  
 
The closest the plaintiff came to articulating a semi-specific manufacturing defect claim was an allegation of “material fatigue.”  Was there any hint in the case that the materials in the implants at issue were in any way out of spec, or different from the norm?  Nope.  Rather, the plaintiff “extrapolated from the injuries” that “there must have been a manufacturing defect.”  Goodbye TwIqbal.  Goodbye whatever is the relevant state law on manufacturing defect.  Hello, new-fangled res ipsa loquitur theory, even though the Sumpter court never uses those magic Latin words.  Under the Sumpter court’s reasoning, once one claims injury from a product, there’s a manufacturing defect that is immune from a motion to dismiss.  (Unless, one supposes, one is in an outlier case where the product was intended to inflict injury.  And then, surely, there is another legal claim at hand.)  The Sumpter court has defectively manufactured a tort claim that, by all rights, should be dismissed based on well-established, clear SCOTUS precedent.
 
The only consolation is that, as we have pointed out many times before, manufacturing defect claims are hard to win.  The odds are long against the likelihood that the plaintiff will ever demonstrate a true manufacturing defect.  Then again, erroneous jury instructions could wreak havoc in favor of even an empty claim, and how can we predict that won’t happen?
 
Justice Powell once said that history “teaches us tolerance for the human shortcomings and imperfections which are not uniquely of our generation, but of all time.”  Tolerance, indeed.  Plus, unlike with SCOTUS, the Sumpter court might some day get reviewed by a higher court.  And then there is the highest authority of all: the DDL blog ten-worst list at the end of this year.  
[Answer to question:  William O. Douglas sat on the High Court for 36 years and 211 days.  He was confirmed at the age of 40.  The judge we clerked for had clerked for Douglas, and could never utter WOD’s name without a growly follow-up along the lines of “…that bastard.”  Apparently Douglas, while being brilliant and charismatic, was not always very nice.]

Last year’s list of the Ten Worst DDL cases was remarkable because all ten decisions came from appellate courts.  Yikes.  And it is not as if the bad appellate decisions were spread around.  Two came from our home circuit, the Third.  Two came from the reliably problematic Ninth Circuit.  But the ‘winner’ was the Eleventh Circuit, with three terrible opinions.  For defense practitioners, Eleventh Circuit precedents can create something of an obstacle course. 

 

It turns out that good federal district judges in SEC country also can be frustrated with what their appellate brethren hath wrought.  Last week we were sent an interesting example of this: Rowe v. Mentor Worldwide, LLC, No. 8:17-cv-2438-T-30CPT (M.D. Fla. March 2, 2018).  In that case, the plaintiff sued for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty arising out of injuries allegedly caused by a silicone gel breast implant. The breast implants are class 3 devices requiring premarket approval from the FDA.  The plaintiff’s implants had ruptured.  The plaintiff asserted that the defendant failed to conduct proper studies and failed to warn about known risks.  The defendant filed a motion to dismiss.  The district court wrote a thorough and well-reasoned opinion, concluding that all of the claims save one must be dismissed.  All of the claims would have been dismissed had it not been for a pesky Eleventh Circuit case that is unsound and inconsistent with other Eleventh Circuit cases.  The district judge acknowledged being stuck, but was none too happy about it.  The Rowe court’s opinion is laid out logically, and we will do our best to track it.

 

Pleadings

 

The court addresses “a growing plague on the justice system, which has wreaked havoc in this case and numerous others: poorly drafted pleadings.” Slip op. at 4. We get an Iqbal name-check.  The Rowe court recognizes the liberalities of notice pleading, but also recognizes that “[t]here is a point, though, where a pleading becomes deficient not because it lacks sufficient allegations to provide notice of claims, but because it buries those allegations among pages of irrelevant and impertinent material.”  Id. at 5  The complaint in this case was 60 pages, with 151 pages of exhibits.  The negligence claim includes “six separate negligence theories that are confusingly interwoven among each other.”  Id. at 5.  In short, the plaintiff “threw every allegation into the Complaint to see what would stick.”  Id. at 6.  But instead of throwing out the complaint wholesale, the court examined the particular causes of action to see which ones, in fact, would stick.

 

Preemption Overview

 

For its preemption analysis, the Rowe court largely relied on the recent Eleventh Circuit decision in Godelia.  That ends up having its ups and downs.  But the general preemption analysis is straightforward enough.  The threshold questions is whether the claims are valid under Florida state law, which governs the case.  If not, those claims are gone.  If so, the next questions is whether those claims are preempted by federal law.

 

Negligence failure to warn 

 

The plaintiff does not allege that the defendant failed to give the warning required by FDA. Therefore, the plaintiff must be seeking to impose a warning requirement that is different from or in addition to federal law.  Such a claim is expressly preempted by statute. Slip op. at 9.

 

Failure to report adverse events 

 

As any even semi-faithful reader of this blog knows, we think this claim is hogwash.  It should fail both on simple causation grounds as well as preemption.  We wrote about this issue earlier this week.  Some of you might know that the Ninth Circuit is a devilishly bad place for defendants on this issue.  But the Rowe court is not in the Ninth Circuit.  Instead, it is Eleventh Circuit law that supplies the framework, and this is one area where the Eleventh Circuit is pretty good, as it sees failure to report claims under Florida law as essentially alleging a claim of fraud on the FDA, which is preempted by Buckman. Slip op. at 10.

 

Failure to comply with federal laws 

 

The claims under this category pertain to alleged breaches of federal requirements and regulations. One example mentioned in the complaint is failure to do required studies.  But Florida law imposes no such requirement. So this claim flunks the preliminary test.  Even if the claim somehow survived that test, it would be impliedly preempted.  Id. at 11.

 

Negligent misrepresentation  

 

The plaintiff offered only the most general allegations of failures to disclose the risks of the implants. The court deemed these allegations to fall far short of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), which requires specificity of fraud allegations.  The plaintiff “never identifies what the misrepresentations were, when they were made, how they were made, where they were made, or who made them.”  Id. at 12. In any event, the misrepresentations seemed to involve what was and was not told to the FDA.  Accordingly, those claims are impliedly preempted under BuckmanId. at 13.

 

Negligence per se 

 

Violation of a federal statute does not establish negligence per se if there is no federal private cause of action.  No such federal private cause of action exists here.  The complaint does not state a parallel claim, and is therefore impliedly preempted. Id. at 14.

 

Manufacturing defect 

 

Everything had been gliding along so smoothly up to this point.  Now we hit a rough patch.  The plaintiff alleged deviations from requirements in the device’s PMA, departures from good manufacturing practices, and vague failures to exercise care in the manufacturing process.  The defendant argued that the plaintiff never pointed to any device-specific requirements. It supported its argument by citing WolickiGables (11th Cir. 2011).  The Rowe court agreed that the Wolicki-Gables standard would require dismissal of the complaint.  But recent Eleventh Circuit decisions in Mink and Godelia cut the other way.  “The holdings in Mink and Godelia are directly at odds with Wolicki-Gables and appear to announce a new standard the Eleventh Circuit is directing courts to apply.”  Slip op. at 16-17.  (We listed Mink as the eighth worst DDL case of 2017.  Here is the post where we explained why we think Mink stinks.)  The Rowe court felt stuck.  Under recent rulings, the plaintiff could conceivably state a claim under parallel requirement.  At the same time, the court recognized that the “negligence count is nearly eviscerated by the Court’s ruling on the other theories.”  Id. at 17.  This, just to ensure there really is some there there, the court directed the plaintiff to replead the one surviving claim in an amended complaint. 

 

(This kerfuffle over what to do about competing circuit precedents reminds us of our time clerking on the Ninth Circuit, which is so huge and spread out that, believe it or not, inconsistent holdings proliferate.  What to do?  Assume there was  no en banc decision, which is what it should take to alter circuit precedent.  Does a panel need to follow the earlier or later decisions.  Your instincts might prompt you to conclude that it is always the most recent precedent that controls.  But if the recent decision’s reversal of precedent was improper, maybe even illegitimate, because it did not go the en banc route, should it really command respect?  We wrote a bit on this issue last year, as part of our extended Fosamax mourning period, and argued that the earlier precedent should control and the later deviation deserves no respect.)

 

 

Strict liability – failure to warn 

 

The analysis here is the same as for negligent failure to warn, and so is the result: preempted. Slip op. at 18.

 

Strict liability – manufacturing defect 

 

Remarkably, the result here is different from the negligent manufacturing defect claim.  For some unknown reason, the plaintiff did not ladle any specific federal requirements into this claim. Instead, the plaintiff simply relied on good manufacturing practices.  Not good enough.  Such allegations do not pass muster under either old or new Eleventh Circuit precedent.  Id. at 18.

 

Breach of implied warranty 

 

Plaintiffs constantly toss in warranty claims as an apparent afterthought.  Or maybe it is a no-thought.  The Rowe case is controlled by Florida law, and Florida law requires privity.  That is all perfectly obvious.  Equally obvious is that breast implants are not available for purchase directly by consumers.  The plaintiff pretty much conceded absence of privity and absence of a legal basis for proceeding with this claim, by not responding to the argument.  The court dismissed the warranty claim. 

 

Final scorecard

 

All that is left is the negligent manufacturing defect claim.  That should be a hard one for the plaintiff to win.

 

It occurs to us that good district judges such as Rowe’s are not the only folks who must grit their teeth and do battle with the Eleventh Circuit’s doctrinal wanderings.  Defense DDL practitioners are in the same boat.  We can relate, inasmuch as the Third Circuit (think of Fosamax) has done us few favors lately.  So we commiserate with excellent defense lawyers such as the ones who fought for and won as complete a victory as reasonably possible in the Rowe case.  Congratulations to Dustin Rawlin, Monee Hanna, and Allison Burke of Tucker Ellis, and David Walz of Carlton Fields.