While 2019 is solidly under way, we’re still catching up on a sizable number of favorable decisions to have come down right before the new year.  That’s certainly not a complaint.  We love a full plate of defense wins.  So, for today’s post we’re reaching back a few weeks to tell you about a decision

At times, we have given a glimpse into the sausage making that goes into our production of posts on recent interesting cases and developments.  Part of the process involves standing searches for “published” (including by the electronic services) decisions from trial courts and appellate courts.  Sometimes, the trial court decisions are unpublished but interesting, and

In the aftermath of Levine, with its generous interpretation of the CBE regulation and its novel “clear evidence” standard, we wondered how long it would be until we saw a court holding that a failure to warn claim with a branded prescription drug was preempted.  Courts were chilled for a while, but eventually the right sort of cases found their way to judges who understood preemption.  Now, we have a pretty big list of decisions finding preemption of such claims, along with decisions exhibiting supportive reasoning.  We are not yet at the point where preemption of failure to warn claims with branded prescription drugs—for a long time, the core claim in the biggest litigations in our bailiwick—is no longer news.  Preemption is still the exception—limited to cases with a strong regulatory history of FDA rejecting the warning plaintiff wanted—rather than the rule, particularly when it comes to favorable appellate decisions.

Rheinfrank v. Abbott Labs., Inc., __ Fed. Appx. __, 2017 WL 680349 (6th Cir. Feb. 21, 2017), is another favorable appellate decision on preemption.  You may recognize the name—especially if you are a blog aficionado—from our prior posts on the case.  We posted on partial summary judgment being granted as to part of the failure to warn claims being offered—on preemption—and the punitive damages claim—on lack of proof of relevant FDA fraud to meet the exception under the Ohio Product Liability Act provision generally precluding punitives for FDA-approved drugs.  We posted on the expansion of the preemption ruling on motion to reconsider to include design defect.  (These garnered an honorable mention in our list of the best decisions of 2015.)  We even posted on motions in limine rulings.  Even with all of those posts, a brief recap of the facts might help.  The minor plaintiff’s mother took the prescription anti-seizure medication at issue for fifteen years, including through four pregnancies, before she became pregnant with plaintiff.  She kept taking the medication at issue, along with another anti-seizure medication she had been taking, through the birth of plaintiff, who was diagnosed with “physical deformities and cognitive disabilities, including Fetal Valproate Syndrome.”  2017 WL 680349, *1.  The label for the medication at issue had long featured a black box warning and other warnings about birth defects, focusing on neural tube defects like spina bifida and discouraging use during pregnancy unless use of the medications “are clearly shown to be essential in the management of their seizures.” Id. at *2.  Over the course of seven years after plaintiff’s birth, FDA refused the manufacturer’s repeated efforts to revise the label to address developmental delays in offspring based on data from a study that was ultimately published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Id. at **2-4.  A revision of the labeling was ultimately submitted by CBE and accepted by FDA in 2011. Id. at *4.  The prescriber back in 2003 and 2004 testified that she was aware of the black box warning on birth defects, would have relayed it to plaintiff, and would not have relied on other materials outside the label. Id. at *2.

Somehow, on this record, the plaintiff got to trial.  Under the logic of “all’s well that ends well,” we will limit our rant on this point.  After all, we have discussed other birth defect cases that got to trial despite obvious issues, resulted in big verdicts, and got affirmed on appeal. Rheinfrank proceeded to trial under the portion of the strict liability failure to warn claim that was not preempted, a strict liability claim for failure to confirm to representations, the portion of a common law negligent failure to warn claim that was not preempted, and a common law negligent design claim.  Among the reasons why the two failure to warn claims should not have seen a court are that 1) Ohio law requires the allegedly inadequate warning to relate to the injury plaintiff claims, 2) claims relating to developmental delays (including as part of Fetal Valproate Syndrome) were preempted, and 3) the prescriber was aware of black box warnings about really serious birth defects and the recommendation against prescription during pregnancy in most situations.  It is hard to see how plaintiff mustered evidence of proximate cause—that is, that a proposed (non-preempted) alternative warning as to a risk of an injury the plaintiff had (based on evidence that existed when the prescription was written) would have changed the prescriber’s decision to prescribe—to survive summary judgment.  Based on the jury instructions that plaintiff proposed at trial, it seems like a broader discussion of risks and the impact of different warnings about risks was permitted than maybe should have been, which is often a reason why failure to warn claims get past summary judgment.  Given that the prescriber denied reliance on any representations outside the label, it is hard to see how that claim got to the jury.  As for the negligent design claim, it is hard to see how the same reasoning for preempting the strict liability design claim would not have applied or how a design of the drug—without being a different drug—that lacked the same birth defect risk could have been offered.  Anyway, the trial judge may have known what was coming, because the jury listened to the just about the best plaintiff could offer and returned a defense verdict on all counts after two weeks.


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

If you’re even remotely interested in the topic of preemption in Pre-Market Approved (PMA) medical devices that were used in an off-label manner, simply search this blog for our Infuse cases. There are dozens and almost all are complete victories for the defense. What occasionally survives are fraud or misrepresentation claims, although they have a tough time meeting the heightened pleading standard of Rule 9(b), or failure to warn claims where a court recognizes failure to submit adverse events to the FDA as parallel to a state law duty to warn physicians. As you’ll easily see from our prior writings, we don’t understand that parallelism at all.

The most recent Infuse victory strikes a blow at each and every attempt by plaintiffs to circumvent, dodge, sidestep, and elude preemption and pleadings standards. And with each by-pass blocked, plaintiffs’ claims had nowhere to go.

As a quick refresher, Infuse is a medical device used to stimulate bone growth in spinal fusion surgeries. It is a multi-component device that received FDA PMA approval for use in single-level, anterior, lumbar surgeries. Aaron v. Medtronic, Inc., — F. Supp.3d –, 2016 WL 5242957, *1-2 (W.D. Ohio Sep. 22, 2016). Aaron is actually a consolidation of the claims of several hundred plaintiffs who alleged they were injured by their surgeon’s use of the Infuse device in an off-label manner. Specifically, they allege the device was either implanted without all of its component parts, implanted posteriorly, implanted at multiple levels, or implanted in their cervical or thoracic spines. Id. at *2. Plaintiffs’ causes of action are fraud/misrepresentation, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligence, and breach of express and implied warranties. Id. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims on several grounds, including most predominantly preemption.

Before getting to the substantive analysis, the court had to consider what pleadings standard to apply. Wait. Isn’t it TwIqbal? What’s the issue? The answer is the Seventh Circuit decision in Bausch v. Stryker. The Aaron plaintiffs alleged that they did not need to plead the specific federal law or regulations that defendant allegedly violated because medical device products liability cases should have a “more permissive” review standard. Id. at *3. Plaintiffs got that idea from Bausch which held that particularity in pleading the specific FDA regulations violated was not necessary due to much of the “critical information” being kept confidential. Id. at *3-4. Many courts disagree with Bausch, including the Sixth Circuit which held in a non-medical device case that a “natural imbalance of information” does not warrant lowering Rule 8’s pleading standards. Id. at *4. The discovery process cannot be used to find sufficient factual support for plaintiffs’ pleadings after the fact. So, Aaron applies TwIqbal, not some watered down version (although the court does state that some of plaintiffs’ claims might not have withstood application of that lesser standard).


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Not so long ago in a Circuit not so far away, the issue of whether design defect claims against branded prescription drug manufacturers are preempted was joined.  Much like the origins of the Jedi or the major end-of-year holidays as we know them, one would expect a clearer published record of how this came to be.  There can be a tendency to read back from recent experience and imbue our past selves with more knowledge or foresight that we actually had.  For preemption of design defect claims against branded prescription drug manufacturers, we know we have been arguing for it for years and we are not quite sure why it took so long for a Circuit Court to adopt it.  As we noted a few weeks ago, Yates v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharms., Inc., No. 15-3104, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 21428 (6th Cir. Dec. 11, 2015), did find preemption, and did it pretty definitively.  So definitively that it took our spot as top decision of 2015.  Along the way, the court declined to follow a prior decision of the same court, Wimbush v. Wyeth, 619 F.3d 632 (6th Cir. 2010), which itself reversed decisions of the trial court in Longs v. Wyeth, 536 F. Supp. 2d 843 (N.D. Ohio 2008) (granting summary judgment), and Longs v. Wyeth, 621 F. Supp. 2d 504 (N.D. Ohio 2009) (denying motion to alter judgment), each of which included the holding that pre-approval design defect and negligence claims were preempted.  It is with the Longs/Wimbush decisions where our story starts, subject to some back story and with a healthy dose of links to past posts.

We first note, however, that it has long been our view, expressed in many posts and elsewhere, that design defect does not make much sense as a theory of liability for a prescription drug.  In most cases, what the plaintiff alleges made the drug excessively risky and thus defectively designed cannot possibly be changed without making it a different drug.  One of the principles of pharmacology is that changes to the chemical compound will typically affect both the desired and undesired effects in the body–or as the Supreme Court observed in Bartlett, “because of [a drug’s] simple composition, [it] is chemically incapable of being redesigned.”  133 S. Ct. 2466, 2475.  Rarely, a true change to the “design” of the active compound can be identified—maybe chop off this ethyl group or change it from a racemic mixture to a stereoisomer—that will plausibly reduce the pertinent risk, while maintaining benefits and avoiding new risks.  Even where that kind of proposed design change exists, the change would make the drug a different product, not a better version of the same product, which is what design defect is supposed to be about.  There may be some cases where a plaintiff claims that a different balance of a combined drug’s ingredients, or an
inactive ingredient, or the delivery system should be changed to reduce the risk without making it a different drug. Even those cases, though, seem better suited to warnings-based claims.


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One of the most basic prerequisites to having court rules is that the rules aren’t supposed to change substantive law.  With class action rules, like Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 and its state-law analogs, courts seem to have a hard time remembering that.  No substantive effect means that, if a plaintiff couldn’t bring the claim

It wasn’t a complete win, but the summary judgment outcome in Rheinfrank v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2015 WL 4743056 (S.D. Ohio Aug. 10, 2015), has to put a spring in the step of the defendants as they approach trial.  What’s left doesn’t strike us as a very good warnings case.  Rheinfrank involved claims that the antiepileptic drug Depakote caused the minor plaintiff’s birth defects.  Make no mistake about it, Depakote has a known association with such injuries.  First approved in 1983, it’s been a Pregnancy Category D drug since 1988, meaning, according to FDA regulations, that:

there is positive evidence of human fetal risk based on adverse reaction data from investigational or marketing experience or studies in humans, but the potential benefits from the use of the drug in pregnant women may be acceptable despite its potential risks.

21 C.F.R. §201.57(c)(9)(i)(A)(4).  Not only that, since 2003, this drug has carried a black box “teratogenicity” warning, as well as other quite explicit, and all-caps, language to the same effect.  For details, see 2015 WL 4743056, at *2-3.

Plaintiff-mother had used Depakote for years, through four previous uneventful pregnancies.  Id. at *1.  On her fifth pregnancy, even though Depakote came with all these warnings, she continued to take it.  Id.  Her allegations did try to change the subject, however.  In addition to claiming that the black box warning (more about that later) and all the other teratogenicity language were inadequate, she asserted that the defendants failed to warn altogether about “developmental delay.”  Id. at *5.


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A recent decision in the propoxyphene litigation – Schiller v. Eli Lilly & Co., No. 2:12-247-DCR (E.D. Ky. Apr. 7, 2014) – confirms a now basic premise of product liability law: if you claim to have been injured by a drug that you don’t identify, you will lose.

The plaintiff in Schiller, a resident

The pelvic-mesh plaintiff wrote this in his affidavit:  “I do not know whether mesh was implanted in my body.”  Favor v. W.L. Gore Assocs., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17134, *6 (S.D. Oh. Feb. 11, 2014).  We lead with that admission today because we thought it would be a good day to use the old