Maryland Court Resists Imposing "Duty To The World" On Pharmaceutical Maker

Maryland's top court recently affirmed summary judgment for defendant Eli Lilly & Co., in a case brought by a widow whose husband was killed in an auto accident. His car was allegedly hit by a diabetic who blacked out while under treatment with two insulin medications. Gourdine v. Crews, No. 134 (Md. Ct. App. 9/4/08).

Background
Ellen Crews, a Type I diabetic who was taking a combination of insulin medications from Lilly, while operating her car, allegedly suffered some kind of debilitating episode and struck a vehicle driven by Isaac Gourdine, resulting in his death. The issue for the Court was whether Lilly owed a duty to Mr. Gourdine, the third-party who did not ingest the drugs. Plaintiff, the wife of Mr. Gourdine, argued that it was somehow foreseeable to Lilly that Ms. Crews, might allegedly suffer an adverse reaction to the medications, which in turn would cause injury and death to third persons while she was operating a motor vehicle. If she had not been adequately warned about the dangers that allegedly were associated with the specified medications, that would supposedly impact a duty owed to Mr. Gourdine.

Specifically, Ms. Crews took a combination of Humalog, a quick-acting form of insulin taken with meals, and Humulin N, a medication designed to supply a constant source of insulin to the body. Ms. Gourdine contended that, at the time of the accident, Ms. Crews suffered a hypoglycemic reaction and experienced a “blackout” causing her to lose control of her vehicle. Defendant Lilly, plaintiff alleged, owed a duty to protect users of the highway from drivers suffering from hypoglycemia induced by the allegedly misbranded drug.

Lilly sought and obtained summary judgment below on the basis it owed no duty to decedent Gourdine, a nonuser of the drug, to warn about alleged risks associated with the medications. Plaintiff appealed, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed; the case then went up again.

Reasoning
The Court began with a discussion of the elements of plaintiff’s causes of action, noting that duty is an essential element of both negligence and strict liability causes of action for failure to warn. In contrast to the reasoning of the lower courts, however, the Court stated that the duty issue should not be analyzed in the context of the learned intermediary rule – which holds that the manufacturer’s duty to warn is to the prescriber – but as an issue of the common law of torts.

At its core, the determination of whether a duty exists represents a policy question whether the specific plaintiff is entitled to protection from the acts of the defendant; ultimately, the determination of whether a duty should be imposed is made by weighing the various policy considerations and reaching a conclusion that the plaintiff's interests are, or are not, entitled to legal protection against the conduct of the defendant. The foreseeability test relied on by plaintiff  “is simply intended to reflect current societal standards with respect to an acceptable nexus between the negligent act and the ensuing harm.”  While foreseeability is often considered among the most important of the relevant factors, its existence alone does not suffice to establish a duty under Maryland law.

In this case, there was no direct connection between Lilly’s warnings, or the alleged lack thereof, and Mr. Gourdine’s in jury. In fact, there was no contact between Lilly and Mr. Gourdine whatsoever. To impose the requested duty from Lilly to Mr. Gourdine would expand traditional tort concepts beyond manageable bounds, because such duty could apply to all individuals who could have been affected by Mr. Crews after her ingestion of the drugs. Essentially, Lilly would owe a duty to the world, an indeterminate class of people, for which the Court has “resisted the establishment of duties of care.”

Gourdine attempted to draw support from cases in other jurisdictions, in which she asserted that a doctor's duty to warn his or her patient of the risks associated with medication extends to nonpatients who are foreseeably at risk. The Court responded that it has not historically embraced the belief that duty should be defined mainly with regard to foreseeability, without regard to the size of the group to which the duty would be owed, which the courts in Alabama, Hawaii, and Washington, according to plaintiff, have.

On the other hand, numerous jurisdiction had rejected this kind of universal duty, the Court noted. See Kirk v. Michael Reese Hospital & Medical Center, 513 N.E.2d 387 (Ill. 1987); Gilhuly v. Dockery, 615 S.E.2d 237, 239 (Ga. Ct. App. 2005) (patient who was involved in a car accident in which sons were injured filed suit on their behalf based on physician’s alleged failure to warn patient not to drive after taking certain medications; the Court of Appeals of Georgia rejected the claims on behalf of the sons because “[t]o expand a doctor’s duty to his patient to generally include members of the public at large in a case such as this one would be contrary to Georgia public policy”); Lester ex rel. Mavrogenis v . Hall, 970 P.2d 590, 597 (N.M. 1998) (holding that physician owed no duty non-patient injured in automobile accident with patient because the “consequences of placing a legal duty on physicians to warn may subject them to substantial liability even though their warnings may not be effective to eliminate the risk in many cases”); Rebollal v. Payne, 145 A.D.2d 617, 618 (N.Y. App. Div. 1988) (“There is no duty on the part of the operator of a methadone clinic to control the travel activities of a methadone patient giving rise to liability for accidents to a third party such as plaintiff’s decedent.”); Praesel v. Johnson, 967 S.W.2d 391, 398 (Tex. 1998) (stating that treating physicians do not owe a duty to third parties to warn epileptic patients not to drive, for purposes of negligence claims against physicians for failure to warn if patient has accident and injures third party during seizure; “Balancing both the need for and the effectiveness of a warning to a patient who already knows that he or she suffers from seizures against the burden of liability to third parties, we conclude that the benefit of warning an epileptic not to drive is incremental but that the consequences of imposing a duty are great.”).

Gourdine also argued that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which prohibits drug manufacturers from placing a misbranded product into interstate commerce, conferred a duty on Lilly. This statute and its regulations, however, are framed to protect the public in general, and, a statutory obligation which “runs to everyone in general and no one in particular” cannot impose a duty between two parties.
 

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