A series of recent rulings out of the Southern District of Texas in an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter case reflect how well-planned discovery can lead to a successful multipronged summary judgment motion and can effectively prune a plaintiff’s ambitious product defect claims. Conn v. C.R. Bard, Inc., No. 4:14-CV-298.
In 2006, plaintiff’s physicians discovered a blood clot in his inferior vena cava. An IVC filter was inserted to prevent the blood clot from causing potentially fatal further injury. Because of plaintiff’s young age, the physician chose a removable filter. Plaintiff reported abdominal pain just four days after the IVC filter was placed. The blood clot was found to have moved and extended through and above the recently placed filter, and the physicians initiated anticoagulant therapy.
A Pennsylvania federal court has again asked that the state’s Supreme Court clarify whether, and to what extent, medical device manufacturers are immune from strict liability claims by virtue of the “unavoidably unsafe products” exemption recognized in Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 402A cmt. k (“Comment k”)—only this time with a direct certification.
On Thursday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified that question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, along with a question about which negligent design defect theory—or theories—a Pennsylvania plaintiff may assert against a medical device manufacturer. Pet. for Certification of Questions of State Law, ECF No. 50, Ebert v. C.R. Bard, Inc., et al., No. 20-2139 (3d Cir. June 24, 2021) (“Ebert Pet.”). Last spring, Judge Pappert of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed Ms. Ebert’s strict liability claim, finding her IVC filter “an ‘unavoidably unsafe product’” under Hahn v. Richter, 673 A.3d 888 (Pa. 1996), and she appealed that order granting summary judgment to the Third Circuit.
A judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida presiding over the In Re: Zantac (Ranitidine) Products Liability Litigation multidistrict litigation, MDL No. 2924, has held that state labeling and design defect claims against the makers, re-packagers, retailers, and distributors of generic forms for the popular heartburn medication Zantac were preempted by federal law. The court subsequently dismissed these claims against 32 such Zantac generics makers and distributors.
The Zantac MDL was created by the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation on February 6, 2020. The plaintiffs allege that ranitidine, the active ingredient in Zantac and its generic forms, breaks down into N-nitrosodimethylamine (“NDMA”), which is part of a group of compounds that have been shown to increase the risk of cancer. The plaintiffs allege a variety of product liability and related claims against the makers and distributors of Zantac and its generic forms under federal and state laws.
On October 7, 2020, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a defense verdict in favor of a medical device manufacturer and in doing so approved of the trial court’s use of the risk-utility test and not the consumer expectations test in the jury instructions. Cavanaugh v. Stryker Corp., — So. 2d —, 2020 WL 5937405 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 7, 2020). The wrongful death lawsuit was filed against multiple defendants, including the manufacturer of a medical device used to remove blood and clear the surgical field, following the death of a patient during lung removal surgery. The claims against the medical device manufacturer included strict liability design defect, strict liability failure to warn, and negligence.
The plaintiff settled with several health care professionals and only the claims against the manufacturer proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff proposed a jury instruction where the jury could find that the product was unreasonably dangerous if the plaintiff established either the consumer expectations test (which determines liability based on whether the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used as intended or when used in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer) or the risk-utility test (which determines liability based on whether the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The defendant manufacturer, however, proposed that the jury instruction include only the risk-utility test (a product is unreasonably dangerous if the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s proposed instruction and adopted the defendant’s risk-utility instruction.
The first appellate shoe has dropped in the litigation involving the herbicide Roundup, Johnson v. Monsanto Co., decided July 20, 2020, by California’s 1st District Court of Appeal, Division One. We discussed the verdict and the trial court’s post-trial rulings here, and we now follow through with an update.
Initially, the price tag for allowing questionable science into the courtroom, as measured by this verdict, has been reduced. The court of appeal lowered the compensatory damages award from $39 million to about $10.25 million, concluding the jury had improperly awarded noneconomic damages that plaintiff would likely never suffer. Because plaintiff’s counsel had argued to the jury that plaintiff’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma had reduced his future life expectancy to two years, the jury could not award pain and suffering damages beyond that two-year span. And, agreeing with the trial court that constitutional limits required a 1:1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages, the court slashed the $78 million punitive award to about $10.5 million.
In a decision reinforcing the importance of expert testimony in design defect and failure to warn cases, the Eastern District of New York recently dismissed claims against the makers of PAM cooking spray.