Good Risperdal Times, Part Three: Summary Judgment for Janssen in Philadelphia

by Reed Smith
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We write this in the first minutes of the eclipse, about 75 minutes from whatever “totality” will be visible here in southeastern Pennsylvania. We have our certified safety glasses at the ready, we have instructed the midday dog-walker to keep the Drug and Device Law Little Shaggy Rescues indoors (lest they unwittingly look skyward), and we have a continuous loop of the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius” going around in our head. (Parenthetically, we accidentally typed “Fifth Amendment” just then for the name of the band.) The song has nothing to do with the eclipse, but it talks about the moon. And about Jupiter aligning with Mars. Appropriately thematic, we thought.

And, while “love steering the stars” may be a little strong to describe recent activity in Risperdal litigation, we have been pleased by a recent spate of positive developments. Last week, Bexis reported on two favorable decisions out of federal courts, one a post-BMS personal jurisdiction denial and the second a refusal to consolidate dissimilar cases for trial. Today we round out the triumvirate with a nice summary judgment decision from Pennsylvania’s state court system.

In In re: Risperdal Litigation: P.D. v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 231 (July 26, 2017), the (male) plaintiff allegedly developed gynecomastia – excessive breast tissue – when he was prescribed Risperdal (beginning when he was eight years old). He sued, including claims for design defect, failure to warn, and fraud. The defendant won summary judgment. The published decision occurs in a peculiar posture that is a creature of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure. Under Pa. R.A.P. 1025, when a grant of summary judgment is appealed, the trial judge prepares a written opinion in support of affirmance, arguing that there were adequate grounds for the summary judgment decision.

Design Defect

First, the court addressed the plaintiff’s design defect claims sounding in both strict liability and negligence. Because there were unresolved choice-of-law issues, the court considered these claims under the laws of both North Carolina, where the plaintiff was prescribed Risperdal and developed gynecomastia, and Pennsylvania, the forum state. Both states prohibit strict liability design defect claims against pharmaceutical manufacturers. While Pennsylvania, since Lance v. Wyeth, permits claims for negligent design defect, “a drug manufacturer can shield itself from liability for the design of drugs by including appropriate warnings; however, when it becomes known that a drug should not be used in light of the relative risks, the manufacturer can only avoid liability by removing it from the market.” P.D., 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 231 at *8-9. Here, the plaintiff did not offer “any evidence that Risperdal was so dangerous no warning could mitigate the relative risk of gynecomastia.” To prevail on a negligent design defect claim under North Carolina law, the plaintiff was required to submit evidence of a safer alternative design, and he had not “even address[ed] this requirement . . . , let alone submit evidence of a safer alternative design for Risperdal.” Id., at *9. As such, the court held, the plaintiff’s negligent design defect claims also failed under either body of applicable law.

Failure to Warn

The court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s warnings claims rested on a finding that the plaintiff had not met his burden, under either North Carolina law or Pennsylvania law, of proving “warnings causation;” in other words, he had not proven that any alleged inadequacy of the product’s warnings was causally related to the his injury. We love this doctrine, because a successful argument can turn on the opportunistic exploitation of a plaintiff’s lawyer’s failure to ask a single question when deposing the plaintiff’s prescribing physicians.

The plaintiff’s warnings expert opined that the 2006 Risperdal label, in effect when the drug was prescribed for the plaintiff, should have included: 1) a recommendation for physicians to monitor prolactin levels; and 2) an indication that there was a statistically significant association between Risperdal use and gynecomastia. Id. at *12. But, as the court explained, “[a]lthough the parties deposed Plaintiff’s prescribing physicians, neither party elicited any testimony from [the doctors] concerning whether [the expert’s] proposed warnings . . . would have affected their prescribing decision.” Id. And so, the court concluded, “In light of the dearth of testimony from his prescribing physicians that [the expert’s] proposed warnings would have changed their prescribing decision, Plaintiff failed to establish proximate causation.” Id. (citation omitted).

The plaintiff attempted to save his warnings claim by arguing that the defendant engaged in illegal off-label promotion. The court held that, because the plaintiff was in an indicated population and was prescribed the drug for an indicated use, any discussion of off-label promotion was irrelevant to the case.

Fraud

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the court erred in dismissing his fraud claim. Again the court considered this claim under both North Carolina law and Pennsylvania law. Federal courts have interpreted Pennsylvania law as ‘barring [fraud claims]against pharmaceutical manufacturers.” Id. at *18 (citations omitted). Pennsylvania appellate courts have not addressed this issue. North Carolina law permits such claims, but not “where the purported misrepresentation was made solely to a third party.” Id. (citations omitted). “Because . . . neither Plaintiff nor Plaintiff’s mother relied on any representation” from the defendant in deciding whether to use the drug, “Plaintiff’s fraud claim must fail under North Carolina law.” Id.

The parties agreed that, where a true conflict of law existed, North Carolina law would apply, as that state, where the Plaintiff ingested the drug and developed gynecomastia, had a greater interest in the application of its law than did Pennsylvania, the forum state. “Ultimately,” the court held,

[I]t is immaterial whether Pennsylvania law permits a fraud claim in pharmaceutical cases. Assuming, arguendo, that Pennsylvania permits [such a claim], then Pennsylvania law conflicts with North Carolina law and North Carolina law would apply. Conversely, if Pennsylvania law prohibits such a claim, then Pennsylvania law applies. In either scenario, Plaintiff’s fraud claims would be dismissed.

Id. at *19.

We love a good summary judgment decision.  P.D. is sound and well-supported, and we trust that it will be affirmed on appeal. We will keep you posted. In the meantime, the [very cool] eclipse has come and gone. In the words of the Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine!”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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