A bit of a rant today.
We’ve just read Gibson v. American Cyanamid Co., ___ F.3d ___, 2014 WL 3643353 (7th Cir. July 24, 2014), and we have to say that it’s one of the most constitutionally arrogant decisions we’ve ever read. Stripped to its essentials, Gibson is the judicial branch thumbing its nose at the supposedly co-equal legislative branch and saying “we can do it but you can’t.”
Gibson involves one of these seemingly one-way legal doctrines that only protects plaintiffs, but for some reason never defendants, the concept of so-called “vested rights.” Here’s the back-story.
Thirty years ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a judicial exercise of social policymaking, decided to adopt a peculiar form of an already peculiar doctrine – market share liability. See Collins v. Eli Lilly Co., 342 N.W.2d 37 (1984). The court breached a hitherto (mostly) sacrosanct defense – product identification − that a defendant can’t be liable unless the plaintiff first proves that s/he actually used the defendant’s product. The reason was … well, the usual fuzzy-headed logic that the common law can change and we think it’s better that the plaintiff wins. Id. at 45 (we can change the common law), 49 (we’re gonna change the law and let the plaintiffs win because of “interests of justice and fundamental fairness”). Despite the fact that the product was off the market and plaintiffs had taken it many years earlier, the court in Collins had no compunction in extending this new theory of liability retroactively to defendants whose conduct had previously been protected by the product identification defense.
Collins, as most of our readers probably already know, was a DES case. DES was, for all intents and purposes, the world’s first generic drug. Its patent had expired, so anybody who wanted to go to the time and effort to do so (this was the pre-1962 FDA, before NDA requirements were made a lot tougher) could set up shop and make the drug. Scores of companies did, and “DES” became the reference of choice for most doctors and pharmacists. Given the peculiarly long latency period for the peculiar injury – suffered in utero − in DES cases, product identification was a mess. Collins decided to let the plaintiffs win anyway by shifting the burden of proof, contrary to decades (at least) of precedent.
At least in Collins there was a real product identification problem. In the next case (the one ultimately at issue in Gibson), a bunch of class action lawyers decided to gin up a product identification problem. They wanted to sue on behalf of everybody theoretically injured by lead paint, which had been off the market for a quite a while by the time suit was brought. Since causation was an individualized issue that could defeat aggregated litigation, they created an impossible ID problem by skipping over the manufacturers of lead paint (some of whom might have been identifiable in building maintenance records) and sued only the bulk suppliers of lead paint pigment.