Fourth Circuit Punts West Virginia Innovator Liability Issue

by Reed Smith
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We have two posts on innovator liability that we update on a consistent basis: our innovator liability scorecard, and our “Innovator Liability at 100” state-by-state collection of materials that we originally compiled when the one-hundredth judicial opinion on this topic was decided.  Well, not too long ago the Fourth Circuit, in McNair v. Johnson & Johnson, ___ F. Appx. ___, 2017 WL 2333843 (4th Cir. May 30, 2017), did what no court of appeals had done since the innovator liability first reared its ugly head in 1994 – it certified the question to the relevant state high court – in this case, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals:

Whether West Virginia law permits a claim of failure to warn and negligent misrepresentation against a branded drug manufacturer when the drug ingested was produced by a generic manufacturer.

2017 WL 2333843, at *1.

At least a dozen federal court of appeals decisions have rejected innovator liability under the laws of some two dozen states. Ironically, the first to do so was the Fourth Circuit itself, in Foster v. American Home Products Corp., 29 F.3d 165, 168, 171 (4th Cir. 1994), under Maryland law.  Plaintiffs did not begin resorting to the delaying tactic of requesting state court certification until relatively late in the game.  Courts of appeals were not accommodating, refusing to certify what they saw as an outlier issue in Johnson v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., 758 F.3d 605, 614-15 (5th Cir. 2014); Strayhorn v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, 737 F.3d 387, 406-07 (6th Cir. Dec. 2, 2013). See also In re Darvocet, Darvon & Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 2012 WL 3610237, at *3 (E.D. Ky. Aug. 21, 2012), aff’d, 756 F.3d 917 (6th Cir. 2014); Mosley v. Wyeth, Inc., 719 F. Supp. 2d 1340, 1351 n.9 (S.D. Ala. 2010) (district courts refusing certification motions).  But plaintiffs got lucky (for a few months) in Wyeth, Inc. v. Weeks, 159 So. 3d 649, 653 (Ala. 2014), with a certified question, and with nothing left to lose they’ve been trying it ever since.

McNair is not only an outlier procedurally, but is troubling substantively.  First, the Fourth Circuit’s certification opinion seems more concerned with preemption rather than state law – addressing preemption before even bothering with state-law causation principles, and finishing that section with the observation, “while a state law failure-to-warn claim against a generic manufacturer is preempted, such claims are not preempted as to the warnings on a brand-name drug distributed by a brand-name manufacturer.”  2017 WL 2333843, at *3 (emphasis original).  Ordinarily, the existence of a recognized state law claim precedes any decision on whether that claim is preempted.  We always find it troubling when a federal court views principles of state law more through the lens of a preemption dodge than on their merits.

Although pointing out (as could hardly be denied) that even in the current preemption environment, “overwhelming” precedent rejects innovator liability, McNair, 2017 WL 2333843, at *4, the certification order makes it appear as if there is no prior West Virginia law on this subject.  That is simply not so.  As we state in our Innovator Liability at 100 post:

In In re Darvocet, Darvon, & Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d 917 (6th Cir. 2014), the Sixth Circuit concluded that West Virginia “has rejected claims attempting to impose liability on brand manufacturers where plaintiffs ingested only generic drugs.”  Id. at 953.  Darvocet relied upon Meade v. Parsley, 2009 WL 3806716 (S.D.W. Va. Nov. 13, 2009).

[Innovator defendants] are not responsible for the damage resulting from a product that they did not manufacture, distribute or sell. . . .  Product liability law in West Virginia allows for recovery when the plaintiff can prove that “a product was defective when it left the manufacturer and the defective product was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.”  Because neither [innovator defendant] manufactured the product that injured plaintiffs, there is no proximate cause.

Id. at *2-3 (quoting Dunn v. Kanawha County Board of Education, 459 S.E.2d 151, 157 (W. Va. 1995)).

That the Fourth Circuit would decide to omit all of the most directly on-point West Virginia law-based precedent – including a published court of appeals decision − from its certification order is simply inexplicable.  Certainly, ignorance cannot be claimed, as both the Darvocet and Meade decisions were relied upon by the district court in McNair itself.  McNair v. Johnson & Johnson, 2015 WL 3935787, at *6 (S.D.W. Va. June 26, 2015).  We can only hope that the West Virginia high court (docket available here) will not be misled by these omissions.

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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