As we ring in the new year, it is time once again to reflect on some of the most significant legal developments for drug and device companies this year. The list below is by no means exhaustive (who could forget the Rule 702 updates that took place this year, which will carry over into 2023?), but provides a brief recap and assessment of five of the most interesting and consequential developments affecting drug and device law in 2022.
A developing line of cases across the nation may have large implications for medical device manufacturers defending against failure-to-warn claims. While a treating physician’s failure to read or rely on the manufacturer’s warnings has historically been fatal to a failure-to-warn claim in many jurisdictions (at least those without a “read and heed” presumption), plaintiffs have tried novel “alternative avenues” arguments to make summary disposition of the claim more difficult.
There are two theories under which a failure-to-warn claim may be brought in the products liability context: a manufacturer with a duty to warn may breach its duty by either (1) failing to provide an adequate warning of the product’s potential risks (the “content theory”) or (2) failing to adequately communicate the warning to the ultimate consumer (the “communication theory”). Plaintiffs have traditionally pursued failure-to-warn claims in prescription medical device cases under the content theory, with most courts holding that a treating physician’s failure to read or rely on the manufacturer’s warnings in the product’s instruction for use (“IFU”) is fatal to the claim. See, e.g., Foster v. Ethicon, Inc., 2021 WL 1169473, at *7 (D.S.D. Mar. 26, 2021).
A recent Second Circuit preemption decision illustrates the importance of a clear-eyed approach to medical device preemption issues.
In Glover v. Bausch & Lomb, Inc., 6 F.4th 229 (2d Cir. 2021), the district court dismissed as preempted a complaint concerning vision loss from defective intraocular lenses implanted during cataract surgery. Plaintiff developed “Z syndrome,” permanently impairing her vision, and sued the manufacturer under the Connecticut Product Liability Act (CPLA) for failing to warn. She alleged the defendant had failed to report prior Z Syndrome cases to the FDA, as required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).
It is axiomatic that a plaintiff must offer evidentiary support for each element of her claim in order to survive summary judgment. And a ubiquitous feature of product liability actions is the use of expert witnesses by both sides. These principles are, of course, related – the plaintiff usually must offer expert testimony in order to make a prima facie case, and the defense then attacks that prima facie case through expert testimony. But sometimes a plaintiff loses sight of the connection and, despite retaining an expert, fails to elicit the opinions she needs to make her case. As a recent decision from the Western District of Wisconsin illustrates, it pays for a defendant to carefully evaluate whether a plaintiff has checked all of the necessary boxes.
In Moore v. National Presto Industries, Inc., 2022 WL 1555875 (W.D. Wis. May 17, 2022), Plaintiff alleged that she was injured when she opened her pressure cooker while it was still pressurized, ejecting its contents onto her arm, causing burns. Plaintiff sued the cooker’s manufacturer, asserting strict liability claims for design defect and failure to warn as well as a claim for negligence. Defendant moved for summary judgment on each of these claims.
How demanding is the causation standard in a California failure to warn claim when a learned intermediary testifies that he would have read and incorporated more stringent warnings if they had been available? Is the plaintiff required to show that the stronger warning would have altered the physician’s decision to prescribe the product? Or may the plaintiff establish causation by showing that the physician would have communicated the stronger warnings to the patient and that a prudent person in the patient’s position would have declined the treatment as a result?
The Ninth Circuit isolated this undefined causation standard in Himes v. Somatics, LLC, and certified the question to the California Supreme Court. After confirming that the learned intermediary doctrine is alive and well in California and that a failure to warn claim cannot survive when the learned intermediary does not read the warnings at all, the Ninth Circuit stopped short of defining the causation standard that applies when a learned intermediary does read the warnings.
We have written before about the Supreme Court’s impossibility preemption decision, Merck Sharpe & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, 139 S. Ct. 1668 (2019) (Albrecht) (here, here, here, and here), highlighting some open questions and uncertainties that might come into play on remand. Albrecht held that impossibility preemption is a question of law for the court, not for the jury, “elaborated” on the “clear evidence” standard arising from Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009) (Wyeth), and remanded to the Third Circuit for determination of the preemption issue. That court in turn remanded to the District of New Jersey and further directed the district court “to determine the effect of the FDA’s Complete Response Letter and other communications with Merck on the issue of whether the agency actions are sufficient” to find preemption.
We predicted that the decision on remand would be “interesting” and opined that the case for preemption was “strong.” We now have that decision, In re Fosamax (Alendronate Sodium) Prod. Liab. Litig., 2022 WL 855853 (D. N.J. Mar. 23, 2022) (Fosamax), and we were right on both counts.