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July 22, 2009
Taking stock: a quarter century of product liability defense
James Beck and Mark Herrmann
[Originally published in the Drug and Device Law Blog, 7-9-09.]
The two of us have been practicing law now for a little over 25 years. Bexis graduated law school in 1982 and Herrmann a year later. At big firms it takes a few years -- five at least -- before we could start to have any real strategic impact on the cases we were working on. And it took a few years for us to get around to being product liability defense lawyers in the first place.
But now we're here, there, whatever.
We've been doing product liability defense for the better part of a couple of decades, and we've got maybe a couple of decades more to go. So how are we -- not just us, but this generation of the defense bar generally -- doing at this midpoint of our careers?
Bottom line: Are our clients better off now than when we started?
We decided today was as good a time as any to take stock.
Grade: A. Back in the late 1980s, we had to take class actions in product liability litigation very seriously. While there were never a lot of certifications, there were enough of them that – during the Bone Screw litigation, for example – plaintiffs would argue that there was some sort of “modern trend” favoring certification of personal injury class actions. Some courts said so, too. See In re A.H. Robins Co., 880 F.2d 709, 738 (4th Cir. 1989) (later abrogated). We remember how relieved we were to beat the class certification motion in Bone Screw, which kept that litigation from posing an even more existential threat to our clients than it already did.
Then our side prevailed in Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 (1997), and Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815 (1999). After that – with a lot of blood, sweat, and good legal argument from our side – class actions (at least successful ones) largely disappeared from mass torts, as we’ve discussed before. The few courts willing to certify class actions in drug and medical device cases have so far gotten shot down on appeal, most recently in the St. Jude litigation. Zyprexa may follow. And with the enactment of CAFA, most class action decisions going forward, and essentially everything in mass torts, will be made by federal courts applying post Amchem/Ortiz law.
Medical monitoring, a non-personal-injury derivative of personal injury causes of action that the plaintiffs’ bar dreamt up with class actions in mind, has largely failed in recent years to produce very many successful certifications – despite lots of attempts. We collected those cases here.
Likewise, class actions involving purely economic losses, usually brought as adventurous applications of consumer fraud, RICO, or warranty claims, have had rough going. The first round of appeals in St. Jude recognized the key argument: Even if a given consumer fraud statute does not require the individualized element of reliance, defendants may disprove causation with individualized evidence of non-reliance.
As a measure of how far out of the mainstream tort class actions have become over the last couple of decades, the ALI’s Aggregate Litigation principles project, for all its pro-plaintiff leanings in other areas of the law, states quite clearly that personal injury class actions are disfavored for a variety of reasons.
There’s also a distinct trend afoot, not limited to tort cases, to tighten consideration of class action allegations. The old rule of no "merits" consideration during class certification is out the window.
To top it all off, our side has also had a good deal of success arguing against cross-jurisdictional class action tolling - that failed class actions filed in one court should not toll the statute of limitations on claims filed in a different court. That deprives failed class actions of the one substantive benefit that they could confer upon plaintiffs (as opposed to their lawyers).
We’re still litigating a few issues, such as whether punitive damages can ever be assessed on a classwide basis – discussed here – but overall our clients are a lot better off on the class action front now than they were when we got into this business.
Grade: A. Back when we got started, the courts waved through just about any garbage that a plaintiff’s expert wanted to say. See Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 788 F.2d 741, 744-45 (11th Cir. 1986) (allowing testimony with no epidemiologic or other statistically significant support that spermicide, of all things, caused birth defects).
Then along came Daubert v. Merrrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U .S. 579 (1993). For a while there, it was touch and go. Daubert could have been interpreted as loosening the already capacious federal standard for expert certification even further. But the good guys, again through a lot of hard work and inspired argument, were able to gain the upper hand in this area. The most important thing wasn’t really the standard itself, but the concept of the judge – not the jury – as “gatekeeper.” Given the amount of junk science that plaintiffs’ experts were spewing, if we could just get courts believing that they had an obligation to review things critically, we would win.
And we did, although it took several return trips to the Supreme Court to nail it down. See General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997); Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999); Weisgram v. Marley Co., 528 U.S.440 (2000).
Daubert was a drug case. It was the Bendectin litigation’s lasting gift to the legal profession.
After a while, the Daubert divide’s gotten to be like night and day. We don’t win every case, but we win a lot more of them than before. Nineteen years after Wells, the same court decided McClain v. Metabolife International, Inc., 401 F.3d 1233 (11th Cir. 2005), reversing and requiring judgment n.o.v. where an expert relied on little more than temporal association. That's monumental change for the better.
And the most important part of Daubert – stringent substantive review of expert opinions, by whatever name – is increasingly finding its way into state court decisions as well, in places like New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
So this is another area where we think that, after twenty-plus years of our laboring in the litigation vineyards, our clients are a lot better off.
Grade: A- (due to incompleteness). We’ve been all over Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (U.S. 2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), on this blog.
For good reason.
Before these decisions, the federal pleading standard was a joke. Plaintiffs could survive a motion to dismiss without pleading a single actual fact, only the same boilerplate they could repeat over and over again in thousands of identical complaints, with only the names changed to encourage the greedy.
Under the new plausibility standard, so far it looks like things will get better. We haven’t done a complete survey by any means, but we do analyze post-Riegel device preemption cases, and a lot of those are being decided on motion to dismiss lately. Under the new pleading standards, the courts aren’t buying boilerplate allegations of “FDA violations” any longer – and cases are getting dismissed (or not refiled). That's immediate, concrete improvement.
We’re hoping that carries over to other allegations having nothing to do with preemption, such as feasible alternative design, warning causation, and reliance.
If our side can continue to build on Iqbal and Twombly the way we have with the Supreme Court’s favorable class certification and expert admission decisions, maybe we can force the other side to abandon their word processors and actually have to evaluate the facts relevant to each of their clients before filing suit.
So with respect to pleading, our clients are already better off – and could be a lot better off – than they were when we first got our seats at the table.
Learned Intermediary Rule
Grade: A-. The minus is due to the wrongheaded decisions of one state supreme court and a federal district court ignoring state precedent, undermining the learned intermediary rule in a couple of smaller states.
The A is due to the number of states that have adopted the learned intermediary rule since the mid-1980s. Take a look at the chart we did a while ago on who’s adopted the learned intermediary rule. In 1987 sixteen state supreme courts had adopted the rule. We’re up to 33 now, with the addition of Wyoming after that post was written. Three more states, including Texas, have had their supreme courts adopt the rule in cases not involving drugs or devices. Federal courts have predicted adoption in three more states.
Personally, we’ve been involved in state supreme court decisions either adopting or reaffirming the learned intermediary rule in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Georgia.
Beyond simply the number of states adopting the learned intermediary rule, we’ve also seen a strong trend towards its expansion in various directions. It’s expanded from drugs to medical devices. The rule has grown from adequacy of warnings to whether an allegedly defective warning had any causal effect. It’s expanded from failure to warn claims to other claims such as consumer fraud. The rule has been increasingly adopted to protect entities like pharmacists, in addition to product manufacturers.
And because the learned intermediary rule requires that warnings be viewed from the perspective of medical professionals, courts have increasingly been requiring expert testimony as to warning adequacy.
So far, even when the other side tries their own version of “tort reform,” they haven’t really gotten anywhere trying to repeal the learned intermediary rule legislatively - at least not yet. "Constant vigilance."
So with the learned intermediary rule as well, we’d have to say that our clients are quite a bit better off now than when we started in this business.
Grade: B. What? Didn’t you guys just get hammered in Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S. Ct. 1187 (2009)?
Yeah, and our ears are still ringing.
But back 20+ years ago, who’d ever heard of preemption in a product liability case to begin with? When we got started, preemption was nowhere.
We were on the barricades in the first wave of preemption litigation, in vaccine cases. We got clobbered.
We were back on the barricades in the second wave of preemption litigation. We had just gotten most of the Bone Screw litigation thrown out on preemption grounds, see In re Orthopedic Bone Screw Products Liability Litigation, 1996 WL 221784 (E.D. Pa. April 8, 1996), when we got clobbered again in Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470 (1996). So we’re sort of used to it.
But we’ve got some degree of prescription drug preemption after Levine, with the boundaries still to be fleshed out. In Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 128 S. Ct. 999 (2008), we won extensive preemption with respect to pre-market approved medical devices – a minority of all devices, but a category including a lot of the most important devices that would be most adversely affected by litigation as usual. Maybe best of all, preemption precludes the other side from standing up in front of juries and alleging that our client lied to the FDA in its regulatory submissions. Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).
So we haven’t gotten the home run with preemption that we hoped, but considering that back in the late 1980s preemption wasn’t even an affirmative defense worth pleading, our cohort has made significant gains for a significant number of clients.
Prevention of Innovative Liability Theories
Grade: B-. When we started market share liability was a major threat to burst its DES bounds and become generally accepted. That hasn’t happened. No state has adopted it since Hawaii in 1991, and some of the states that did so earlier, like New York, have tightly confined it to the original DES set of facts. Score one for the good guys.
Public nuisance is also appearing more and more like a bad idea whose time has passed. It got a little traction with some pro-plaintiff courts in gun litigation, but not that much. Lately the theory – when asserted in product liability litigation – has taken its lumps in lead paint litigation. Public nuisance has gotten nowhere in drug and device litigation. Two-zip to the good.
The third Restatement of Torts, adopted in 1997 and published the following year, cut back on some of the loopier aspects of strict liability, including liability for unknowable risks, and failure to recall/retrofit claims.
We’ve largely kept an independent duty to test out of the law, too.
And fraud on the FDA is preempted (see above).
But on the other side of the ledger, consumer fraud claims have become staples of our opponent’s litigation strategy, and thus banes of our existence. Twenty years ago practically nobody ever encountered them. So that’s not so good. Still, since consumer fraud claims are limited to economic damages, they’re not worth very much unless the plaintiffs can find some way of aggregating them. See our earlier discussion of class actions. So the jury’s still out on how useful those claims will be for the other side in the long run.
New Jersey, a drug tort hotbed, recently put the kibosh on consumer fraud claims in product liability actions – that’s good.
Even better, our side's been able to convince most courts that such statutes can’t be enforced extraterritorially, outside of the state that enacted a particular statute. That cuts down on the size of any attempt to aggregate claims.
The learned intermediary rule helps, too, since physicians make individualized risk/benefit decisions in deciding to prescribe drugs and devices. That fact tends to preclude litigating these cases as class actions. So does the additional fact that most drugs and devices – how shocking! – actually help people. People who took a drug or used a device, got the benefit, and didn’t suffer an adverse side effect haven’t been injured. Fact of injury thus becomes another individualized determination that has prevented class actions.
We’ve also had a see-saw battle with negligence per se claims based upon alleged FDCA violations. Most of the older cases that were around when we were getting started allowed those claims without a lot of discussion, because after all the FDCA was enacted to make products safer, wasn’t it? However, the principle that the FDCA prohibits plaintiffs from privately enforcing the statute against violators, enunciated by the Supreme Court in Buckman, has helped our clients defeat those claims more often in recent years. But negligence per se hasn't yet gone the way of the dinosaurs, and some courts have allowed such claims.
Something else we didn’t see much of twenty years ago was the so-called post-sale duty to warn. That’s proliferated quite a bit, as even the Third Restatement included it. Fortunately, we don’t see all that much of post-sale claims in our neck of the woods.
Another negative we have to admit is that on our watch medical monitoring went from a legal peculiarity to, if not a majority rule, at least being allowed by a fair number of states, as our 50-state survey shows. So we haven’t been able to stop that one either.
All this adds up to a mixed record in beating back the various novel theories of liability that plaintiffs have invented over the years. We’ve gotten rid of some altogether, and limited others. But some geniis have escaped from the bottle despite the best efforts of our generation of defense lawyers.
Grade: D. Two words: “electronic discovery.” Twenty years ago, when we were starting to move into responsible positions, nobody had ever heard of it.
Now electronic discovery has gotten entirely out of hand. It’s hideously expensive, ridiculously intrusive, and almost entirely a one way street. Tort plaintiffs don’t often have large, frequently upgraded computer systems.
Everything else that our side’s been able to accomplish in limiting or streamlining discovery – routinized plaintiff questionnaires, federal-state coordination, restrictions on apex depositions, the inadvertent production doctrine, etc. – pales by contrast to the constantly metastasizing disaster that is electronic discovery.
Reducing Overall Litigation
Grade: F. It hasn’t happened. The other side has been more efficient in soliciting large numbers of plaintiffs to populate the ever growing number of pharmaceutical and medical device mass torts than our side has been in stopping them. The racket that mass torts have become is so downright predictable that we parodied it a while back.
But beneath that parody is lies the simple fact that, since the Supreme Court’s first benighted decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977), extending First Amendment protection to lawyer advertising, the other side’s solicitation machines have become more and more effective, and there’s not a constitutional thing we can do about it. Even when our side gets a crumb from the Supreme Court, such as Florida Bar v. Went For It, Inc., 515 U.S. 618 (1995), upholding a trivial 30-day cooling off period from personalized solicitations, the vote was only 5-4.
As long as society tolerates virtually unlimited lawyer solicitation as a constitutional right, there’s not a lot of ways for our side to close the litigation floodgates.
Not that we haven’t tried; it’s just our side’s efforts to stop the onslaught of boilerplate, virtually uninvestigated filings hasn’t accomplished very much. Lone Pine orders are a handy invention, but they have yet to become routine, as, say, the litigation hold memos our side has to put up with. Rule 11 once had possibilities, but too many lawyers on both sides played games with it, so in 1993 the Advisory Committee defanged it. That rule hasn't been a significant factor since.
Maybe we’ll have better luck requiring individualized showings of “plausibility under Iqbal/Twombly, but that’s still in the future.
For the present, and over the past twenty years, the number of mass torts, and the number of plaintiffs involved in mass torts, has grown steadily. The list of federal court product liability MDLs maintained by the Judicial Panel on Multi-District litigation is one way to measure it. There was never more than one new drug/device MDL created per year (and in a lot of years, none) until 2001, when Baycol, PPA, Silzone, and ProteGen were all created. Then: 2002-0; 2003-1, 2004-2, 2005-4, 2006-8; 2007-3; 2008-10. Not a trend to be proud of.
If everything that we do is ultimately supposed to deter future litigation against our clients, then it hasn't worked at all.
So we flunk ourselves on that one. Maybe the next generation of defense lawyers can do better.
James Beck and Mark Herrmann are respectively lawyers in the Philadelphia office of Dechert, and the Chicago office of Jones Day, and defend drug and medical device litigation for a variety of clients. They publish the widely known Drug and Device Law Blog, where this essay first appeared.