Today we discuss Sherrod v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., 2021 Tenn. Cir. LEXIS 74 (Tenn. Cir. Ct. 2021), a recent Tennessee trial court decision granting the defendant device manufacturer summary judgment on preemption grounds. Notwithstanding one quibble, there is much to like about the decision.

The plaintiff, who asserted a plethora of product-liability and

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In a rare harkening to our past and discussion of specific judges, we recall that our first gig after law school was clerking for Judge Jon P. McCalla of the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.  Downtown Memphis had not yet undergone “gentrification,” so a short walk in any direction from the Federal Building had to be undertaken with some caution.  In addition to barbecue and blues, a federal litigant’s visit to Memphis held the prospect of appearing before any one of an interesting assemblage of district judges.  Judge Odell Horton had taken senior status after a long stint as chief judge of the district; he was a Carter appointee and exceedingly nice to everyone.  He was also the first African American federal judge in Tennessee since Reconstruction.  Judge Julia Smith Gibbons had taken over as the chief judge after starting on the federal bench at 33—a Reagan appointee—and everyone knew she would be heading up to the Sixth Circuit at some point.  Judge Jerome Turner was another Reagan appointee, who we recall mostly for taking his clerks to lunch regularly and for an untimely death a few years later.  Judge Bernice Donald assumed the bench while we were there, having been tapped to jump up from the bankruptcy court by the first President Clinton.  (The actor/Senator who was in Die Hard 2: Die Harder showed up for the swearing in ceremony.)  Judge McCalla had been appointed by the first President Bush and clerked (for Judge Bailey Brown, before he went up to the Sixth Circuit) in the same chambers some years earlier.  He had the military bearing you would expect from his pre-law background as an office in Vietnam and a well-deserved reputation for being “by the book” and “no nonsense.”  (The softer side that attorneys appearing before him missed was evident when he was with his family, including the puppy we helped train while housesitting.)

Twenty years later, we discuss Judge McCalla’s decision in Fleming v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., No. 2:15-cv-02799-JPM-dkv, 2016 WL 3180299 (W.D. Tenn. June 6, 2016), which follows the memorable Yates decision authored by Judge Gibbons, who did, indeed, head up to the Sixth Circuit.  Hence why we recounted the iudicis personae of the Western District from our relative youth. Fleming involves asserted state law claims in connection with plaintiff’s alleged kidney injuries from a branded prescription diabetes drug.  Defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds, which we will discuss in the order of importance to us.

First, of course, was the argument that plaintiff’s design defect claim was preempted as pleaded. This angle of attack is noteworthy because winning any kind of preemption for a branded prescription drug at the motion to dismiss phase is rare and because the progression from Bartlett to Yates (decided on summary judgment) to such motions being viable was something we forecast/urged. As discussed more later, plaintiff had pretty barebones design defect allegations that suggested that all drugs within this class of anti-diabetic agents was too risky and that there were “several safer alternative products”—not alternative designs for this product. Id. at *1.  In response to defendant’s argument for impossibility preemption, plaintiff contended that its claim was based on a “duty to design the drug differently before FDA approval,” which could have been characterized as “never start selling theory.” Id. at *5.  “The Sixth Circuit, however, found this type of argument to be ‘too attenuated’ and ‘speculat[ive]’ because it requires several assumptions as to FDA approval and a patient’s selections of and medical reaction to the alternative design.” Id. (quoting Yates, 808 F.3d 281, 199-300).  While a case with the same drug in the Eleventh Circuit had rejected Yates impossibility preemption while granting a motion to dismiss, the analysis in Fleming was straightforward.  “The Court finds that Plaintiffs’ design defect claims are preempted by federal law because preemption can apply to both generic and branded drugs and because it would have been impossible for Defendants to comply with both state and federal law.” Id. Like we said, this is a “by the book” judge.  Other judges taking a similar approach could provide the advantage of getting obviously preempted design defect claims out early, narrowing the scope of fact and expert discovery.


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