Federal Court Predicts Delaware Would Recognize Medical Monitoring In Device Context- But Why?

Two recent, related federal court opinions illustrate just how unsettled the law of medical monitoring continues to be. Molly Guinan V. A.I. Dupont Hospital For Children, 2009 WL 311113 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 6, 2009); Molly Guinan V. A.I. Dupont Hospital For Children, 2009 WL 307019 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 6, 2009).

Plaintiff is one of several infants who had what the court called a “controversial” procedure to correct a congenital heart defect performed on her by doctors at the A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. Cardiologists implanted a covered stent manufactured by NuMed, Inc., a New York corporation that is one of the few developers of pediatric medical devices in the United States. The stent had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration when implanted. Plaintiff developed serious conditions that were allegedly side effects of the treatment, and there were factual disputes surrounding the treatment plaintiff received when her injuries first began manifesting themselves.

Plaintiffs sued the doctors, hospital, and device maker. Plaintiff articulated two different theories of negligence against the treaters: (1) medical negligence premised on malpractice; and (2) lack of informed consent. (The plaintiff parents claimed they weren’t told anything, and the defendant doctors claimed they told the parents everything.) At bottom, Guinan is another of an increasing number of cases in which what are in reality malpractice cases are being twisted into product liability litigation. Even worse when they get stretched into medical monitoring claims. Multiple summary judgment motions were filed.

The first question was choice of law. Plaintiffs were residents of New Jersey, and the complained-of surgery occurred in Delaware. Plaintiffs sued in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the child was then being treated for the complications. The aspect of most interest for readers of MassTortDefense is not the malpractice claim, but the medical monitoring claim. The court noted that Pennsylvania and New Jersey recognize medical monitoring as a cause of action. However, there are differences between the laws of the two states that created a conflict. See In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig. (Paoli II), 35 F.3d 717, 787-88 (3d Cir.1994) (identifying potential conflict between Pennsylvania and New Jersey medical monitoring causes of action). In Delaware, the court said that it is not clear whether medical monitoring is an independent tort or whether medical monitoring is simply a remedy. However, while some Delaware decisions have mentioned medical monitoring, Mergenthaler v. Asbestos Corp. of Am., 480 A.2d 647, 651 (Del.1984), the state has never adopted medical monitoring.

The court concluded that Delaware had the greatest interest in seeing its law applied to this action and thus Delaware law would control. Again, Delaware has never recognized medical monitoring as a legally cognizable cause of action. See Mergenthaler, 480 A.2d at 649 (affirming Delaware Superior Court's dismissal of plaintiffs' “claim for the expenses of medically required surveillance ... where there [was] no present physical injury,”). Going through an Erie analysis, the district court predicted that the Delaware Supreme Court would permit a claim for medical monitoring if it were confronted with the facts of this case. Such a prediction seems in direct contrast to 3d Circuit guidance on the issue. E.g., Lexington National Insurance Corp. v. Ranger Insurance Co., 326 F.3d 416, 420 (3d Cir. 2003) (federal court in a diversity case should be reluctant to expand the common law); Werwinski v. Ford Motor Co., 286 F.3d 661, 680 (3d Cir. 2002)(court should opt for the interpretation that restricts liability, rather than expands it).

Several considerations militated in favor of allowing plaintiff to proceed with a medical monitoring claim, said the court. It is undisputed that plaintiff has a Class III medical device in her body. Moreover, it is undisputed that the device did not have premarket approval from the FDA. The FDA, NuMed, and the Institutional hospital defendants have all suggested that plaintiff should receive follow-up care to monitor the stent. “This is compelling, if not conclusive, evidence that medical monitoring is appropriate in this case.”

The court rejected any countervailing policy considerations. See, e.g., Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 443-44, 117 S.Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 (1997) (discussing potential for a “ ‘flood’ of less important cases” that could “entail systemic costs without corresponding benefits” if the Supreme Court were to recognize a “full-blown” medical monitoring tort in the context of the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). In sum, considerations of fairness, efficiency, and deterrence favored recognizing a cause of action for medical monitoring, according to the court.

The second, companion opinion’s choice of law analysis included New York, NuMed's state of incorporation. The court found again that Delaware has the greatest interest. And while Delaware has not expressly adopted a medical monitoring claim, for the same reasons as above, the court again predicted that the Delaware Supreme Court would adopt a claim for medical monitoring.

The surprisingly simplistic analysis boils down to bad facts make bad law (or bad predictions of the law). The plaintiff's novel theory that a tort claim for medical monitoring can be applied to medical procedures and devices raises serious policy issues that the court never analyzed. In a case involving HRT, Vitanza v. Wyeth, Inc., 2006 WL 462470 (N.J. Super. Ct. 24 Jan. 2006), claimants sought class certification of a group defined as all persons in New Jersey who had taken the drug Prempro and were not suffering from breast cancer, but who wanted medical monitoring for an alleged increased risk of future cancer. The court dismissed the claim, noting that the state's recognition of medical monitoring came in the unique context of manifest exposure to toxic substances in environmental tort actions, and is to be applied sparingly. The policy reasons applicable to the environmental exposure context (including the difficulty in proving exposure levels and duration, and even the identity of the chemicals at issue) are not present in the prescription drug context where claimants have access to relevant information through the label, pharmacy records, and their prescribing physician. The need to deter polluters, perceived to be present in the toxic tort context, does not apply to life sciences companies. See also Parker v. Howmedica Osteonics Corp., 2008 WL 141628, at *5, n.6 (D.N.J. 14 Jan. 2008)(applying similar reasoning to device context). See generally Sinclair v. Merck & Co., 195 N.J. 51, 948 A.2d 587 (N.J. 2008)(plaintiffs could not maintain an action for medical monitoring in a pharmaceutical product liability action). That the device was not approved yet for this use doesn't change the fact that the FDA has primary responsibility for regulating use of the product.

Moreover, from a doctrinal perspective, medical monitoring requires an underlying tort or tortious conduct. Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Department of the Army, 696 A.2d 137, 145 (Pa. 1997); Potter v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 863 P.2d 795, 823 (Cal. 1993) (“as a result of a defendant's tortious conduct”); Meyer v. Fluor Corp., 220 S.W.3d 712, 717 (Mo. 2007); (“consequences of the defendant’s tortious conduct”); Hansen v. Mountain Fuel Supply Co., 858 P.2d 970, 979 (Utah 1993) (“which exposure was caused by the defendant’s negligence”); (“through the tortious conduct of the defendant”); Bower v. Westinghouse Electric Corp., 522 S.E.2d 424, 432 (W. Va. 1999); Petito v. A.H. Robins Co., 750 So.2d 103, 106 (Fla. App. 1999) (“caused by the defendant’s negligence”). Here, the negligence claim was dismissed for lack of any viable expert opinion on either liability or damages. There was no viable product defect claim, because of the experimental product. There was no proof of fraud. Bottom line, there was no tort upon which to predicate medical monitoring. Was the court predicting that Delaware would not only adopt the claim, but would do so without this essential element?
 

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