Foreign Toxic Tort Judgment Cannot Be Enforced in U.S.

A federal court has ruled that a $97million judgment issued against Dole Food Co. and Dow Chemical in a Nicaraguan court cannot be enforced in the U.S. courts.  See Osorio v. Dole Food Co., No. 1:07-22693 (S.D. Fla.).

Plaintiffs in this case had alleged that 150 banana farmers had suffered a number of injuries because of exposure to pesticides. Specifically,the workers on Dole’s banana plantations in Nicaragua between 1970 and 1982 claimed they were harmed by their exposure to the chemical compound dibromochloropropane (DBCP) which has been linked to sterility, according to plaintiffs. The Nicaraguan Legislature enacted a statute in 2000 specifically to handle DBCP claims there.  More than 10,000 plaintiffs have filed approximately 200 DBCP lawsuits in Nicaragua, most of which are still pending. Already, however, Nicaraguan courts have handed down over $2 billion in judgments to these plaintiffs. A few Nicaraguan plaintiffs have brought DBCP suits in the United States, with the California state courts, for example, concluding that the DBCP claims before it were the direct result of a widespread conspiracy to commit fraud by attorneys in Nicaragua, Nicaraguan doctors and judges (including the Nicaraguan trial judge who issued the judgment in this case), and some of the plaintiffs themselves.

Here, pursuant to this new law, the trial court awarded $97.4 million to compensate the plaintiffs for the alleged DBCP-induced infertility and psychological effects, about $647,000 per plaintiff.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that defendants had “clearly established” their entitlement to nonrecognition of the award.  States are not required to recognize judgments rendered in foreign countries under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution of the United States. U.S. CONST. art. IV, § 1; Guinness PLC v. Ward, 955 F.2d 875, 883 (4th Cir. 1992). In the absence of a treaty, the effect given to a foreign judgment has historically been governed by the more flexible doctrine of comity, which, though often couched in the language of mutual respect and obligation, is most accurately described as a matter of grace. See, e.g., Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 166 (1895).

Here, the district court found: (1) the Nicaraguan trial court lacked personal and/or subject matter jurisdiction under the Special Law 364; (2) the judgment was rendered under a system which does not provide procedures compatible with due process of law; (3) enforcing the judgment would violate Florida public policy; and (4) the judgment was rendered under a judicial system that lacks impartial tribunals.

A few highlights: the federal court noted that the Nicaraguan attorney general had found that this Special Law violates the country’s constitution because, among other things, it assumed that the plaintiffs will automatically prevail and does not even contemplate the possibility that DBCP defendants might succeed in defeating the plaintiffs’ claims.  While the Nicaraguan Supreme Court later upheld the law, it is clear that absent the presumption of causation, there was no evidence before the Nicaraguan trial court sufficient to determine that DBCP exposure caused the plaintiffs’ injuries.  And the irrefutable presumption of causation resulted in findings that were incompatible with medical and scientific facts. The majority of the plaintiffs were awarded damages even though they allegedly suffered exclusively from conditions not scientifically linked to DBCP exposure. About one-fifth of the prevailing plaintiffs had fathered children in the years since their last alleged exposure to the chemical -- undercutting the infertility claim in a somewhat conclusive way.

In every year from 1999 through 2008, the Country Reports prepared by the State Department have concluded that Nicaragua lacks an effective civil law system.  In 2002, the year this case was filed in Nicaragua, the State Department found that  “Judges’ political sympathies, acceptance of bribes, or influence from political leaders reportedly often influenced judicial actions and findings."   The Special Law was upheld as constitutional by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court because it allowed a defendant to opt-out of jurisdiction there if the defendant agreed to jurisdiction in the U.S.  Here, the defendants consented to jurisdiction in the United States and waived their defenses under the forum non conveniens doctrine. Their initial pleadings contested the foreign trial court’s jurisdiction and attempted to exercise their opt-out rights.  Yet, in December 2004, 14 months after the Nicaraguan Supreme Court issued its opinion clarifying that Special Law 364 was constitutional because it permitted defendants to opt out of Nicaragua’s jurisdiction, the trial court denied Dole and Dow’s jurisdictional challenges.

In sum, Special Law 364 contained numerous unique provisions that apply only to a narrow class of defendants, and operate to their distinct disadvantage in a pronounced discriminatory fashion. The court also found that Special Law 364’s disparate treatment of defendants is fatally unfair and discriminatory, fails to provide the minimum level of due process to which all foreign defendants are entitled, and is, therefore, incompatible with the requirements of due process under Florida law.

 

Update on Digitek Litigation

In the Digitek MDL, the parties have been wrangling over the defense motion for a Lone Pine order. See generally Lore v. Lone Pine, No. L-336006-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J. Super. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986).

Dozens of product liability cases alleging that defendants Actavis Totowa LLC, Actavis Inc. and Actavis Elizabeth LLC marketed Digitek tablets containing double the appropriate dosage were transferred to an MDL assigned to Chief Judge Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia last summer. In Re: Digitek Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1968 (S.D. W.Va.).
 

Defendants recently moved for a Lone Pine order under which each plaintiff must submit an "affidavit from a medical expert in each case establishing that there is medical evidence of digoxin toxicity." Readers of MassTortDefense recognize this important and logical procedural tool for management of mass toxic tort litigation.  When the major factual battles will be over injury and causation, it may make sense to focus discovery on these issues, and prior to resorting to expensive and time-consuming discovery, to require plaintiffs to come forward with some prima facie showing of injury and specific causation, or as the court put it, "some evidence of certain elements of their claims, e.g. medical causation, to support a credible claim."

The plaintiffs in the federal Digitek multidistrict litigation filed a brief opposing the motion, arguing that the discovery in the MDL is still in its "incipient stages."  As they typically do, the plaintiffs argued that such orders "effectively function as untimely and unjust summary judgment devices and violate the discovery rules for expert witness disclosures and reports." They also argued that they have provided significant case-specific discovery in the form of Plaintiffs' Fact Sheets and records authorizations.

The court entered PTO #43 (Order re Request for Lone Pine Order), saying the motion is taken under advisement pending completion of basic fact discovery of Group 1 cases. Under the latest schedule, Plaintiff shall serve their reports from liability experts no later than March 15, 2010.  The parties shall complete their depositions of Plaintiffs’ liability experts no later than May 28, 2010.  Defendants shall serve their reports from liability experts no later than June 15, 2010. The parties shall complete their depositions of Defendants’ liability experts no later than August 31, 2010. 

At the November 20, 2009, conference each party is to present to the court their choice of five cases that they believe to be representative plaintiffs for trial in accordance with PTO #38, governing the creation of a trial pool upon completion of basic fact discovery, including but not limited to the depositions of plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ physicians who prescribed Digitek® to them, physicians who treated Plaintiffs for alleged digoxin toxicity, and pharmacists who filled plaintiffs’ prescriptions for Digitek®.
 

"Global Warming" Litigation Update (Part II)

Part two of our update on recent climate change litigation.  In our last post, we discussed the well reasoned decision in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 2009 WL 3326113 (N.D.Cal. 9/30/09).  We contrasted it with the somewhat startling (2-judge) Second Circuit panel decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., allowing a group of states and land trusts to proceed with a so-called global warming tort suit.

In another noteworthy recent case, the Fifth Circuit recently held that a group of property owners in Mississippi can proceed with global warming-related claims. See Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2009 WL 3321493 (5th Cir. 10/16/09).  A proposed class of thousands of property owners alleged that damage to their Mississippi coastal properties from Hurricane Katrina would not have been as serious had not defendants' climate change conduct intensified the storm. Along with the Second Circuit decision, this opinion represents a clear and dangerous trend within the court of appeals to usurp Congress, warp the traditional nuisance doctrine, and plunge the federal courts into what are essentially political questions.

In Comer, the district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, asserting that until Congress, the executive branch, or a federal agency acts more directly on global warming, Mississippi common law tort rules questions posed by the case are justiciable because there is no commitment of those issues exclusively to the political branches of the federal government.  Thus, plaintiffs had demonstrated standing for public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims; the claims were justiciable and did not present a political question. 

The Fifth Circuit in some ways went  further than the Second Circuit, ruling in essence that climate change-related claims are not limited to injunctions being brought by governmental entities or even quasi-public groups like nonprofit land trusts. The Fifth Circuit ruled that private property owners under Mississippi law also may have standing to bring climate change-related nuisance and trespass claims for both property and punitive damages. That holding may propel additional climate change litigation -- if the ruling stands following likely rehearing motions.

The causation allegation here was arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants' greenhouse gases didn't cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn't create but then made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse.  That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history -- the absence of proximate cause as a matter of law.  The concurrence noted this issue, and would have affirmed a dismissal on this basis.  With class certification, expert discovery, Daubert, and summary judgment hurdles to be crossed, it is clear that this causation issue will not soon disappear.

Ironically, the rash of global warming opinions in cases that had been argued long ago may reflect a recognition of the new administration and a changing emissions policy... in turn, reflecting the political nature of the issues. All readers ought to have profound reservations about the notion, inherent in all private climate change litigation, that the tort system is capable of adjudicating rights and responsibilities on the subject of global warming.

The decisions potentially present business interests with difficult choices: proposed regulations from the administration may be onerous and not grounded in good science; but absent federal action, defendants may risk public nuisance liability in the courts on issues that juries cannot begin to handle well.  

Global Warming Litigation Update (Part I)

Today, the first of a couple of posts on the so-called global warming litigation.  We have posted on the climate change litigation before, and here, and we note first that a  federal trial court recently dismissed a global climate change suit filed by Inupiat Eskimos from Kivalina, Alaska against dozens of oil and energy companies. Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 2009 WL 3326113 (N.D.Cal. 9/30/09).

The suit was brought by the village of about 400 people, who alleged that as a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice that protects the Kivalina coast from storms has been diminished, and that resulting erosion will require relocation of the residents to another village.  (The town of Kivalina is located at the tip of a six-mile-long barrier reef, about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's northwest coast.) Plaintiffs sought damages under federal common law nuisance, state nuisance, and civil conspiracy theories. They alleged that defendants were a major part of the cause of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which plaintiffs claimed are causing global warming.

The defendants properly noted that many of the questions raised by the plaintiffs in this suit were inherently political; there are no traditional judicial standards available to adjudicate such political issues. They also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing under Article III because the injury to the plaintiffs was not “fairly traceable” to the conduct of the defendants. 

Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed, finding global warming to be a political issue not appropriate for a federal court to decide. The courts have long indicated that disputes involving political questions lie outside of the Article III jurisdiction of federal courts.  Corrie v. Caterpillar, Inc., 503 F.3d 974, 980 (9th Cir.2007). The political question doctrine serves to prevent the federal courts from intruding unduly on certain policy choices and value judgments that are constitutionally committed to Congress or the executive branch.  Koohi v. United States, 976 F.2d 1328, 1331 (9th Cir.1992).  A non-justiciable political question exists when, to resolve a dispute, the court must make a policy judgment of a legislative nature, rather than resolving the dispute through legal and factual analysis. Courts typically look at three broad factors: (i) Does the issue involve resolution of questions committed by the text of the Constitution to a coordinate branch of Government? (ii) Would resolution of the question demand that a court move beyond areas of judicial expertise? (iii) Do prudential considerations counsel against judicial intervention?

Under the second factor, which was key here, the court concluded that a factfinder would have to weigh, inter alia, the energy-producing alternatives that were available in the past and consider their respective impact on far ranging issues such as their reliability as an energy source, safety considerations and the impact of the different alternatives on consumers and business at every level. The factfinder would then have to weigh the benefits derived from those choices against the risk that increasing greenhouse gases would in turn increase the risk of causing flooding along the coast of a remote Alaskan locale. Plaintiffs ignored this aspect of their claim and otherwise failed to articulate any particular judicially discoverable and manageable standards that would guide a factfinder in rendering a decision that is principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions.

Secondly, plaintiffs conceded they were unable to trace their alleged injuries to any particular defendant.  While they sought to rely on, by analogy, injury concepts under the Clean Water Act, the court concluded that even if the theory were applicable outside the context of a statutory water pollution claim, it is simply inapposite where, as here, plaintiffs have not alleged that even the “seed” of their injury can be traced to any of the defendants. Plaintiffs acknowledged that the genesis of the global warming phenomenon dates back centuries and is a result of the emission of greenhouse gases by a multitude of sources other than the defendants. The complaint further alleges that the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide -- “the most significant greenhouse gas emitted by human activity” -- has been increasing steadily “since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, and more than one-third of the increase has occurred since 1980.”  Significantly, the source of the greenhouse gases are undifferentiated and cannot be traced to any particular source, let alone a defendant, given that they rapidly mix in the atmosphere. 

The court thus dismissed the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, both because of the political question, and because the plaintiffs could not prove the companies caused the alleged injury.

The decision is consistent with most prior decisions coming out of the district courts, which generally have viewed these climate change cases as raising fundamentally political judgments.  The decision is a more coherent analysis than the recent, ostensibly conflicting, ruling of the Second Circuit allowing plaintiffs to sue over climate change under federal common law, in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., No. 05-5104-cv (2d Cir. 9/21/09).  (It also will be contrasted in our next post with the Fifth Circuit's recent ruling in Comer v. Murphy Oil Co.

The Second Circuit case involved a suit by states and environmental groups against various electric power companies; these plaintiffs made allegations similar to those in the Alaska case, and that defendants were thus harming the environment, the states' economies, and public health.  The appeals court overturned a well-reasoned trial court ruling that the case represented a non-justiciable political question.  

Unlike the Second Circuit, the California district court recognized major distinctions between ordinary pollution cases and planet-wide climate change allegations;  the court was wisely unwilling to confront -- and could not ignore the existence of -- the myriad legal and policy issues relating to imposing liability on a planetary scale. Judge Armstrong disagreed with the appeals court conclusion that traditional water pollution and air pollution nuisance cases provide appropriate guidance in assessing global warming "nuisance" cases.  While a water pollution claim typically involves a discrete, geographically definable waterway, plaintiffs’ global warming claim is based on the emission of greenhouse gases over decades from innumerable sources located throughout the world and supposedly affecting the entire planet.

Fundamentally, such a nuisance claim would require the judiciary to make a policy decision about who should bear the cost of global warming, if it turns out to be a real climatic phenomenon. Though alleging that defendants are responsible for a "substantial portion" of greenhouse gas emissions, plaintiffs also acknowledge in these cases that virtually everyone on Earth is responsible at some level for contributing to such emissions (even you readers). Thus, plaintiffs are in effect asking the courts to make a political judgment that the two dozen defendants named in this action should be the only ones to bear the cost of contributing to global warming.  The Second Circuit, in contrast, in American Electric, tried to draw a highly dubious distinction between a claim seeking a comprehensive solution to global climate change, a task that arguably falls within the purview of the political branches, and a claim "merely" to limit emissions that allegedly constitute a public nuisance -- because the emissions (part of the highly controversial political debate about global warming) are greenhouse gasses and the source of alleged climate change caused by human activity.    

 

Chinese Drywall Update

On the eve of the 3rd biennial United States--China Consumer Product Safety Summit, to be held in China, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported she will press Chinese officials on whether new regulatory standards need to be set for drywall composition. CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said she also would inquire whether the Chinese were willing to provide compensation for the damage from tainted drywall.

In its latest status report on the Chinese drywall issues, the CPSC noted that it had received 1192 consumer complaints, from 24 different states. The majority of the reports continue to be from Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia. The focus of the federal drywall team has remained pursuing the scientific bases of the possible problems, and tracing the chain of commerce of the drywall.

CPSC reports it has completed principal field work for a 50 home indoor air sampling program, coordinated the state and federal response to allegations of radioactive phosphogypsum in Chinese drywall, and completed 75 in-depth site investigations, with another 20 in progress. Long-term air sampling tests will be completed later this month. The evaluation of the results is expected to be complete before November. (Phosphogypsum is a gypsum that has elevated levels of naturally occurring potassium, thorium and uranium radionuclides and decay products.) The CPSC coordinated testing and reporting results for radioactive phosphogypsum contamination in drywall with the Florida Department of Health and the EPA National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory. The results of the technical review showed that no radiological hazard was present. EPA is conducting elemental analyses of 15 drywall samples. EPA expects to complete its analyses of drywall samples in the next few weeks.

CPSC continues to analyze the information received from consumers, builders, importers, manufacturers, and suppliers of drywall to determine how much imported drywall may be affected and where that drywall has been installed. To date, CPSC staff has confirmed that during 2006, 6,997,456 sheets of Chinese drywall were imported into the U.S.

As readers of MassTortDefense know, litigation has been filed over the drywall issues, alleging that sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are abnormally high, causing problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems.  Approximately 200 cases are pending in the MDL. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-md-02047 (E.D. La.).

In the MDL , the next status conference is scheduled for Thursday, November 19, 2009. Recently, the court  issued an order regarding a "Revised Exporter, Importer, or Broker Defendant Profile Form.”  All defendant drywall exporters, importers, or brokers must complete this Profile Form.  The form, inter alia, requires information on exemplar transactions concerning the exportation/importation/brokering of Chinese Drywall for import/export to the United States between 2001 and 2009, including but not limited to purchases, sales, consignments, shipments, transfers, deliveries, receipts, or other distributions.  The form requires information to identify any markings on the Chinese Drywall product (e.g., lot number, batch number, serial number, color markings, UPC codes, etc.) involved in this transaction; a list all trademarks of the product, and any markings or means of identification employed to track or identify the Chinese Drywall.

The issue of linking the specific product that allegedly harmed a plaintiff to the defendants who made and sold that particular product -- often termed "product identification" -- is an essential aspect of the cause in fact inquiry and is often problematic in toxic tort litigation.

 

 

ACS Head Offers Different View of Medical Monitoring

Readers of MassTortDefense involved in the defense of medical monitoring cases will want to follow the ongoing debate occasioned by the New York Times story this week, quoting Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, admitting that American medicine has over-promised when it comes to medical screening and that the advantages of screening have been “exaggerated.”

Medical monitoring, whether a remedy or cause of action, is a claim for the cost of medical screening for a plaintiff exposed to a toxic substance allegedly because of the defendant’s wrongful conduct and who is accordingly at risk of future disease. Medical monitoring is designed to early detect the disease and thus maximize the chances of a cure or beneficial treatment.

As a an advocacy matter, medical monitoring is presented by plaintiffs with the seemingly unchallengeable notion that early detection saves lives. Plaintiff attorneys rely heavily on juror pre-loads about the importance and benefits of screening; virtually every juror has had a Pap smear, or mammogram, or prostrate test, and they have all been inundated with messages from the American Cancer Society that screening is highly efficacious-- messages that ignore the risks of screening. Defendants fight an uphill battle when they try to get the jury to keep an open mind about the risks and benefits of plaintiffs’ experts' proposed screening program.

Reportedly, the ACS is now working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasize that screening for breast, prostate, and other cancers can come with a real risk. Those risks include not only the risks of the screening procedures themselves (such as radiation), but the risks of false positives, and the follow-on risks of over-treating a nodule that would never have developed into life-threatening disease. On the flip side, many researchers point out that the prostate cancer screening test has not been shown to prevent prostate cancer deaths. Similar lack of benefit has been noted with chest x-rays and CT scans for lung cancer. If cancer screening was really as effective as plaintiffs assert, the cancers that once were found late, when they were untreatable or incurable, would now be found earlier, when they could be treated and cured. Thus, a large increase in early cancers found would be accompanied by a decline in late-stage cancers, and an improvement in mortality. That just hasn’t happened for many types of screening.

Whether the issue is the screening tool or the screening itself, plaintiffs should no longer be allowed to base their medical monitoring claims on a widely accepted misconception that all screening is good, and all early detection saves lives.  Defense attorneys may have a juror pool more receptive to the evidence-based argument that plaintiffs must be held to their burden of proof to show that a monitoring procedure exists that makes early detection of the disease possible; the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.
 

 

MDL Created For Zicam Litigation

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation has decided to consolidate multiple federal cases arising from the Zicam product line.  IN RE: ZICAM COLD REMEDY MARKETING AND SALES PRACTICES LITIGATION, MDL No. 2096.  Plaintiffs moved, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407, for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings of multiple proposed class actions.  By the time the Panel issued its Order, there were 40 related actions pending in 26 federal districts.

Many of the pending cases were consumer fraud class actions against Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., and its subsidiaries Zicam, LLC, and Zicam Swab, LLC.  Plaintiffs opposed centralization of any actions alleging personal injury claims. But the Panel found that both kinds of actions involved sufficient common questions of fact, and that centralization of the actions under Section 1407 would serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation. The actions share factual questions regarding, inter alia, the marketing and sale of three Zicam nasal cold remedy products, and alleged injuries sustained by the use and/or purchase of those products, particularly whether the products cause anosmia (the loss of sense of smell). Centralization under Section 1407, the court found, would eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings (particularly with respect to class certification), and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary.

The Panel declined to separate purported consumer class actions from other actions alleging personal injury. Centralization of all actions in this docket would, said the court, allow a single judge to structure pretrial proceedings to accommodate all parties’ discovery needs while ensuring that the common parties and witnesses are not subjected to discovery demands that duplicate activity that will or has occurred in other actions.

The court chose the District of Arizona as the appropriate transferee forum. The defendants are based within the District of Arizona, and relevant documents and witnesses are likely found there, observed the Panel. In addition, centralization in the District of Arizona will allow for coordination of the federal actions with related litigation pending in Arizona state court.

 

New Punitive Damages Book Worth A Look

For those readers of MassTortDefense who confront issues of punitive damages in their practice, a recently released book is worth a look:  DRI's Punitive Damages: A State-by-State Compendium (2009).

The book is a new compendium of the law of all fifty states, the District of Columbia and all Canadian provinces regarding punitive damages. This publication also contains a number of articles focused on recent trends in this area of the law. The book outlines each state’s law and procedure regarding punitive damages. Topics include: Leading cases and statutes in each state; the level of conduct required to trigger an award of punitive damages; product liability causes of action for which punitive damages are recoverable; special rules applicable to particular types of products, classes of products, or defendants; pleading requirements; bifurcation/
phasing procedures; limits of permissible discovery; state-specific defenses; and post-trial procedures.

Your humble blogger served as Co-Managing Editor/Atlantic Region Editor (but no royalties are involved!)

Federal Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Class Action on Washers

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action alleging that Sears Roebuck & Co. and Whirlpool Corp. engaged in unfair business practices and misleadingly marketed thousands of supposedly defective washing machines. Tietsworth et al. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. et al., No. 09-cv-288 (N.D. Calif.)(dismissal without prejudice).

Plaintiffs alleged that  Whirlpool manufactured top-loading Kenmore Elite Oasis automatic washing machines, and Sears marketed, advertised, distributed, warranted, and offered repair services for the machines. Plaintiffs alleged that thousands of the machines contained a defect that causes them to stop in mid-cycle and display a variety of error codes.  Plaintiffs claimed that these electrical control system problems began within the first year after they purchased their washers. Plaintiffs alleged that virtually everything the defendants said about the machines in marketing was false because all such statements related directly to the functioning and performance of the Machine’s Electronic Control Board and, in turn, the Electronic Control Board controls the laundry cycles, the water levels and spin speed.

Defendants moved to dismiss. A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if a plaintiff fails to proffer enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Allegations of material fact must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but the court need not accept as true allegations that are conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences. Here, although their claims arose under state law, plaintiffs' allegations were subject to the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules. Accordingly, the claims alleging fraud were subject to the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 2003) (if “the claim is said to be “grounded in fraud” or to “sound in fraud,” [then] the pleading of that claim as a whole must satisfy the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b).”)

The principal element of fraudulent concealment at issue here was whether plaintiffs pled with sufficient particularity that defendants had a duty of disclosure with respect to the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Plaintiffs argue that defendants had such a duty because they allegedly made "partial disclosures" about the Machines,and  were in a “superior
position" to know the truth.  These arguments were not persuasive to the court. There was no allegation at all, let alone an allegation with Rule 9 specificity, that defendants made any representations directly about the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Nor could plaintiffs establish a duty by pleading, in purely conclusory fashion, that defendants were in a “superior position to know the truth;"  plaintiffs’ general allegations of “exclusive knowledge as the
manufacturer” and active concealment of a defect, if accepted, would mean that any unsatisfied customer could make a similar claim every time any product malfunctioned.

The district court then confirmed that Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards apply to claims for violations of this state consumer act (CLRA ) and unfair competition act (UCL),  where such claims are based on a fraudulent course of conduct.  It was clear that the claims were entirely dependent upon allegations that defendants made misrepresentations, failed to disclose material facts, and concealed known information regarding the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards.  So such claims failed for the same reasons.

Next, plaintiffs claimed that defendants  violated California’s Business and Professions Code by making misleading representations in informational placards on the floor models of the machines and in owners’ manuals. However, the court held that statements that the machines are “designed and manufactured for years of dependable operation” and that the machines “save you time by allowing you to do fewer, larger loads” are not statements about specific or absolute characteristics of a product, and properly are considered non-actionable puffery. See Anunziato v. eMachines Inc., 402 F. Supp. 2d 1133, 1139 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (holding that the representations concerning the “outstanding quality, reliability, and performance” of a product were non-actionable puffery”).

Regarding the unfair business act claim, an act or practice is unfair if the consumer injury is substantial, is not outweighed by any countervailing benefit to consumers or to competition, and is not an injury the consumers themselves could reasonably have avoided. Plaintiffs failed to plead adequately the second and third elements of their claim.  Plaintiffs failed to allege that they could not reasonably have avoided their claimed injuries, for example by purchasing an extended warranty. To the extent that plaintiffs based their claim on defendants’ alleged failure to disclose a
known defect in the machines, a mere failure to disclose a latent defect does not constitute a
fraudulent business practice.

One other highlight.  Plaintiffs contended that defendants’ warranties were procedurally and substantively unconscionable because defendants limited the warranties and allegedly actively concealed a known defect. However, any such claim of oppression may be defeated if the
complaining party had reasonably available alternative sources of supply from which to obtain
the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.  Here, plaintiffs failed to allege facts demonstrating that there were no alternative manufacturers of washers, and thus failed to allege the absence of an “available alternative source of supply from which to obtain the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.”  Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. v. Superior Court, 211 Cal. App.3d 758, 768 (1989). Plaintiffs' emphasis that  any material alternative product or choice was curtailed or eliminated by the suggestions of Sears’ sales representatives that defendants’ machines were “the best” and superior to other washers, far from showing the absence of alternatives, merely highlighted the fact that alternatives apparently existed. 

Third-Party Payor Class Action Alleging Off-Label Marketing Dismissed by Federal Court

The federal court has dismissed a putative class action brought by a group of municipal benefit funds over a pharmaceutical company's alleged efforts to market drugs for uses that did not have regulatory approval. Central Regional Employees Benefit Fund, et al. v. Cephalon Inc., No. 09-cv-03418 (D.N.J. Oct. 15, 2009).

Plaintiffs commenced this putative class action against defendants alleging violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), and for fraudulent concealment, and “illegal fraud.”  The plaintiffs defined their putative class as including “all governmental entities in the United States of
America who have been caused to expend monies" for certain drugs as a "result of the off label promotion by the defendants.”  They alleged that defendant Cephalon promoted drugs for uses other than those approved by the FDA, and that as part of its “off label” marketing efforts, Cephalon allegedly made false representations regarding the use and application of several in particular, Provigil, Gabitril, Actiq and Fentora.

The case, thus, falls in the growing body of cases by governmental third-party payors searching for a windfall in revenue by challenging the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies over drugs that are effective, are safe, are prescribed by physicians, and are often affirmatively recommended by other branches of the entity bringing suit.  As many courts have held, off-label use is an accepted and necessary corollary of the FDA’s mission to regulate in this area without directly interfering with the practice of medicine. E.g., Southard v. Temple University Hospital, 566 Pa. 335, 340 781 A.2d 101, 104 (2001) (quoting Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341, 350 (2001)). Such use, necessary because medical practice inevitably runs ahead of the slower pace of governmental regulation, is generally accepted, widespread in the medical community, and often is essential to giving patients optimal medical care. Buckman, 531 U.S. at 351 & n.5 (citation omitted).  Thus, a physician, using his or her best medical judgment for the benefit of his patient, generally is free to use an approved product in a manner different from that for which the FDA has approved. Cabiroy v. Scipione, 767 A.2d 1078, 1082 (Pa. Super. 2001).

The FDA has accepted off-label use for decades:

  • Accepted medical practice often includes drug use that is not reflected in approved drug labeling. . . . a physician may prescribe a drug for. . .patient populations that are not included in approved labeling. Such. . .‘unlabeled’ uses may be appropriate and rational in certain circumstances, and may, in fact, reflect approaches to drug therapy that have been extensively reported in medical literature. . . . Valid new uses for drugs already on the market are often first discovered through serendipitous observations and therapeutic innovations.

FDA, “Use of Approved Drugs for Unlabeled Indications,” 12 FDA Drug Bulletin 4, 5 (1982). 

It is clear that physicians may prescribe a drug off-label for an unapproved population without FDA knowledge or approval.  Blain v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 240 F.R.D. 179, 182 (E.D. Pa. 2007). And courts are “not willing to accept that a plaintiff could somehow be injured by purchasing a drug that is as effective, or more effective, than alternative treatments simply because the drug is marketed off-label.”  In re Schering-Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, 2009 WL 2043604, at *10 (D.N.J. July 10, 2009). Absent some “adverse effects,” a “theory under which [plaintiffs] would be entitled to reimbursement for some or all of the purchase price of [a drug] whose benefits they clearly enjoyed. . . is patently absurd.”  Heindel v. Pfizer, Inc., 381 F. Supp.2d 364, 380 (D.N.J. 2004).  

Cephalon moved to dismiss the NJCFA and common law fraud claims, contending that the plaintiffs failed to plead specific acts of fraud to support the legal conclusions contained in the Complaint. The plaintiff’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Also, the plaintiffs’ common law fraud claims were subject to the heightened pleading standards of Rule 9(b), which requires that in all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).

Cephalon argued that the plaintiffs, as third-party payors of prescription medication benefits, are not “consumers” under the NJCFA. The court said that the nature of the transaction, not the identity of the purchaser, determines whether the NJCFA is applicable. J & R Ice Cream Corp. v. Cal. Smoothie Lic. Corp., 31 F.3d 1259, 1273 (3d Cir. 1994).  For a NJCFA plaintiff to be a consumer respecting the transaction in question, the business entity must be one who uses economic goods, and so diminishes or destroys their utilities. However, third-party payors essentially serve as middlemen or insurers, paying all or part of the cost of a beneficiary’s drugs in return for a stream of payments from the beneficiary.  Because third-party payors do not use or consume prescription medications themselves, they are not “consumers” within the meaning of the NJCFA, and that statute was therefore inapplicable to the circumstances alleged in the Complaint.

Next, the court found that the plaintiffs’ common law fraud claims failed to meet the pleading requirements of Twombly, Iqbal, and Rule 9(b). Count II of the Complaint, fraudulent concealment, referred merely to an unspecified “transaction and/or providing of the prescription drugs Provigil,
Gabitril, Actiq and Fentora.” The court was at a loss to discern to what transaction the plaintiffs were
referring, as the Complaint fails to identify or explain the who,what, where, why, and how of any “transaction.”  Mere allegations that Cephalon provided prescription drugs, without saying to whom or under what circumstances, wholly failed to state a claim for fraud. 

The plaintiffs attempted to rely on a reference in the Complaint to a proceeding in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 2003, brought pursuant to the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq., wherein Cephalon was alleged to have engaged in “misbranding” of its products. However, referring to a plea agreement and civil settlement in another action does not satisfy the plaintiffs’ burden; it is well-established that off-label marketing of an approved drug is itself not inherently fraudulent. Merely alleging that Cephalon marketed the drugs at issue for off-label purposes did not state a claim for fraud.

The court thus also dismissed the claims for fraudulent concealment and illegal fraud, but without prejudice.
 

Federal Court Approves Class Action Settlement in Toxic Tort Case

The Sixth Circuit has approved a class action settlement in an interesting toxic tort case. Moulton v. U.S. Steel Corp., 2009 WL 2997921 (6th Cir., 9/22/09).

This class action was filed in 2004 by neighbors of a steel mill operated by defendant U.S. Steel, and alleged various claims arising from “metal-like dust and flakes” allegedly falling on plaintiffs' property. The district court in Michigan certified the class in 2006, and the parties eventually agreed on a settlement for $4.45 million in 2008.

As is not unheard of, some class members and at least one plaintiffs' lawyer objected to the settlement. They argued that the settlement agreement was not “fair, reasonable, and adequate” under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e)(2).  Specifically, they argued (1) that the agreement dis-serves the “public interest” due to the broad scope of the release, (2) that alleged “collusion” between Class Counsel and U.S. Steel tarnished the agreement and (3) that the agreement improperly prioritizes the distribution of the settlement proceeds. The district court rejected all such objections, and the court of appeals reviewed the district court's conclusions for abuse of discretion.

To determine whether a settlement agreement satisfies Rule 23's fairness standard,  courts consider:  (1) the risk of fraud or collusion;  (2) the complexity, expense and likely duration of the litigation;  (3) the amount of discovery engaged in by the parties;  (4) the likelihood of success on the merits;  (5) the opinions of class counsel and class representatives;  (6) the reaction of absent class members; and (7) the public interest. UAW v. Gen. Motors Corp., 497 F.3d 615, 631 (6th Cir.2007). 

On the issue of the scope of the release, the release of the continuing nuisance claims was held not unfair, because, contrary to the objections, it did not go“well beyond the claims plead in the complaint."  Since 2005, every version of the plaintiffs' complaint included a claim for “continuing private nuisance.”  As class members, the objectors are the last individuals in a position to claim lack of notice that this claim was on the table at the settlement talks. And the bar on future continuing nuisance claims applies only to claims arising out of conditions that existed prior to the settlement. It does not preclude future continuing nuisance claims based on emissions from new equipment installed after the date of settlement. Nor does it bar future claims based on old equipment, so long as the continuing nuisance is a “new” one.

Neither did the objectors make the case that the agreement was a product of collusion. See Williams v. Vukovich, 720 F.2d 909, 921 (6th Cir.1983). The duration and complexity of the litigation undermined the objectors' suspicions. The parties litigated for almost four years before reaching a settlement agreement. The court fielded numerous contested pretrial motions. Class Counsel pursued multiple avenues to gather evidence; and the agreement itself was a product of months of supervised negotiations, two facilitated mediations and a settlement conference with the court.

Third, there was the challenge to the $4.45 million settlement, which the agreement distributed as follows: $300 to each covered member of the class, limited to one award per household; $10,000 to the seven class representatives; and $1.335 million in attorney's fees (30%) and $622,279.86 in costs to class counsel. Any residual goes to local public schools. Because class counsel received 4,026 class-member claims, roughly $1.21 million will go to the claimants and roughly $1.28 million will go to the schools. The appeals court noted that the district court should have been more expansive in its explanation of the approval of the award as reasonable.  However, that claimants will in the aggregate receive less than Class Counsel does not automatically invalidate the agreement. That the public schools will receive $1.28 million in unclaimed funds does not reflect on the settlement's fairness.

Finally, a plaintiffs' lawyer purporting to represent multiple class members insisted that the court improperly shut him out of the case. In what the appeals court called a “sideshow” to the main case, the attorney reportedly contacted an unknown number of class members after the class certification advising them to opt out because those who opt out “always get a much higher settlement than … the general population.”  The 6th Circuit found that the district court also did not err by corralling the extent of this counsel's involvement in the case. Rule 23 gives the district court broad discretion in handling class actions, authorizing orders that impose conditions on the representative parties or on intervenors. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(d)(1)(C).  In view of the questionable communications with litigants, unannounced solicitation of opt outs, and apparent guarantee to individuals who opted out, the district court appropriately exercised its discretion, said the Circuit.

Partial Summary Judgment Granted in Genetically Modified Rice MDL

The judge overseeing the federal MDL involving genetically modified rice has granted partial summary judgment to the defendants, dismissing several claims, including a public nuisance allegation. In re: Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, No.4-md-1811 (E.D. Mo. 10/9/2009). 

This multi-district litigation relates to the claims of U.S. long-grain rice producers, and others in the rice business, who allege that certain defendants contaminated the U.S. rice supply with non-approved genetically modified strains of rice. The first of a series of bellwether trials will begin in November; this first trial involves Missouri farmer plaintiffs, and the court's Order rules on only the portions of the motions directed to the claims of the Missouri plaintiffs.

The Missouri plaintiffs are seeking damages under a variety of theories, including negligence,  public and private nuisance, negligence per se, and the North Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act. The plaintiffs are suing to recover allegedly lost income they claim resulted from the drop in market price for rice; following the announcement of the contamination in 2006, some rice companies around the world banned the importation of U.S. rice, which allegedly caused a dramatic drop in the U.S. market price for rice.

Judge Catherine Perry of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an opinion on a host of summary judgment  issues, most notably granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims under the North Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act and on plaintiffs’ claims for public nuisance and negligence per se.

Defendants asserted first that the economic loss doctrine bars all the common-law claims.  The economic loss doctrine bars recovery of purely pecuniary losses in certain tort cases if there is no personal injury or physical damage to property other than the property at issue in the case – usually an allegedly defective product in a products liability case. A plaintiff suing over damage to a product he contracted for is limited to his contract remedies. Many states have adopted the economic loss doctrine for products liability cases, and some states have applied the doctrine to other torts
as well. Here, however, the court found that the alleged damages were not to any property that was the subject of a contract, and the plaintiffs were not claiming damage to any property that is alleged to be defective. Rather, they claim market losses and damage to other property, including equipment, land, and rice. Because they alleged damage to other property, the doctrine does not
apply, concluded the MDL court.

Defendants fared better with plaintiffs' attempt to rely on the more pro-plaintiff North Carolina statute.  The court noted that plaintiffs are not suing based on contracts with Bayer, and although some of Bayer’s decision-making occurred in North Carolina, the claims of plaintiffs cannot be said to arise mainly from those North Carolina activities.  Although there was some conflicting authority, the court concluded that the better reasoned cases require an in-state injury to a plaintiff’s in-state business operations. In other words, the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act is intended to protect the North Carolina consumer.  Plaintiffs had not shown that their claims here had a sufficient effect on North Carolina business for them to benefit from this act intended to protect North Carolina commerce.

Third, in Missouri, a public nuisance is an offense against the public order and economy of the state that violates the public’s right to life, health, and the use of property, while, at the same time annoys, injures, endangers, renders insecure, interferes with, or obstructs the rights or property of the whole community, or neighborhood, or of any considerable number of persons. Bayer was able to show that, as matter of law, plaintiffs cannot recover for public nuisance. There is no evidence in the record showing the sort of public harm or negative effect on the entire community that public nuisance law was developed to remedy.

A private nuisance, on the other hand, is the unreasonable, unusual, or unnatural use of one’s property so that it substantially impairs the right of another to peacefully enjoy his property.  Plaintiffs’ private nuisance claim survived summary judgment because factual disputes remain regarding whether contamination of plaintiffs’ crops may interfere with their enjoyment of their land. The focus of a private nuisance claim, said the MDL court,  is on defendant’s unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s land.  A genuine issue of fact remains regarding whether plaintiffs can prove a private nuisance.

Defendants were entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs’ negligence per se claim, to the extent it relied on a violation of federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulations. This is because they are more in the nature of performance standards that do not provide a standard of
care.  So, for example, if a building code says a stair riser must be six inches tall, that is a precise directive that a builder can follow, and if someone is injured because the riser is taller or shorter, negligence per se might apply.  A building code that says the stair riser should be of a sufficient height not to be dangerous or so that a person will not fall could not provide a basis for a negligence per se claim because the question of what is reasonable was not answered by the building code regulations.

We will keep an eye on the first bellwether case for our readers.

Federal Court Dismisses Granola Class Action Under Twombly

A federal court has dismissed a proposed class action accusing General Mills Inc. of somehow misleading consumers by labeling granola bars that contained high fructose corn syrup as “100 percent natural.”  Wright v. General Mills Inc., No. 08-cv-01532, 2009 WL 3247148 (S.D. Calif. Sept. 30, 2009). The dismissal turned on the complaint’s sparse allegations of injury-in-fact, which did not meet the pleading standards mandated in Twombly/Iqbal.

General Mills markets, advertises, promotes, and sells “Nature Valley” crunchy granola bar products and “Nature Valley” chewy-trail-mix bar products. Plaintiff alleged that the Nature Valley products were sold as “100% Natural” even though the products allegedly contained one or more non-natural or artificial ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup. Plaintiff asserted because HFCS does not occur in nature and is a man-made sweetener, the use of “100% Natural” on the package and in the advertising for the Nature Valley products is false, misleading and deceptive. The complaint alleged violations of California Business and Professions Code, Unfair Competition Law; and False Advertising Law. The suit was purportedly filed on behalf of a putative class of all California residents who bought Nature Valley granola bars.


Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on two bases: preemption and the Rule 8 pleading standards. Regarding the former, defendant argued that plaintiff’s claims are impliedly preempted by regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) pursuant to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 301, et seq. The FDCA gives the FDA the authority to regulate certain aspects of food and beverage safety and labeling. 21 U.S.C. § 371. General Mills first asserted that plaintiff’s claims are impliedly preempted because Congress intended the federal government to occupy the field of food and beverage labeling. Defendant based this argument on the FDA’s enactment of what it called a detailed, rigorous, and comprehensive system for labeling food products through the FDCA and related regulations. Readers of MassTortDefense know that field preemption may be implied from a scheme of federal regulation so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the states to
supplement it, or where an Act of Congress touches a field in which federal interest is so
dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject. The court here ruled, however, that although the FDA has promulgated several food-labeling requirements, Congress has specifically indicated that it does not intend to occupy the field of food and beverage nutritional labeling, and states are permitted to regulate matters covered by the NLEA and its regulations, provided that such state laws do not fall within the FDCA’s express preemption provisions.

Next, conflict preemption analysis examines the federal statute as a whole to determine whether a party’s compliance with both federal and state requirements is impossible or whether, in light of the federal statute’s purpose and intended effects, state law poses an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress’s objectives. The court found that the FDA has generally deferred taking regulatory action with respect to the term “natural,” and thus plaintiff’s state law claims do not stand as an obstacle to accomplishing Congress’s objectives of uniformity and consistency in regulating labeling.

Although the FDA has addressed the use of the term “natural” in depicting food and beverage products, its policy with respect to the use of the term “natural” is unrestrictive, said the court. The FDA follows a policy of not taking enforcement action charging that a product labeled as “natural” is misbranded, so long as the product has no “added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.” Thus, state law claims based upon the use of the term “natural” do not require technical expertise within the special competence of the FDA, and the primary jurisdiction doctrine does not apply either.

However, a motion to dismiss should be granted if plaintiffs have not pleaded enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. A plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Here, the complaint was based on little more than conclusory and speculative factual content. For example, the causes of action which plaintiff asserts require an injury in fact, an injury based upon
defendant’s use of “100% Natural” on its product labeling and advertising. The plaintiff’s sparse allegation of injury-in-fact did not meet the Twombley and Iqbal pleading standard.

Similarly, plaintiff failed to adequately assert an untrue or misleading advertising claim or a fraudulent business practice because all she alleged was that members of the public were likely to have been deceived and likely made their purchases on the basis that “100% Natural” would not include a highly processed ingredient. A claim for unfair or fraudulent business practices is an averment of fraud which must be accompanied by the who, what, when, where, and how of the misconduct charged. And, on the issue of injunctive relief, it was undisputed that by the time plaintiff filed her complaint defendant’s products no longer contained HFCS. As a result, there was no basis for injunctive relief.

In sum, plaintiff’s complaint did not meet the pleading standard of Twombly or Iqbal, or
Rule 9(b) where the state law claims are based on fraudulent acts. The court dismissed the claims without prejudice, giving plaintiff an opportunity to cure.
 

EPA Finalizes Nano-technology Research Strategy

Many readers of MassTortDefense have wondered about the potential future litigation risks associated with nanotechnology. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just finalized its new strategy to guide its research into how nanomaterials, used in a growing number of consumer products, might be studied for potential effects on human health and the environment. The Nanomaterial Research Strategy (NRS) describes the EPA's strategy for conducting and supporting research to understand the potential human health and ecological implications from exposure to manufactured nanomaterials, and how nanotechnology can be used sustainably in environmental protection applications.

EPA has written this document with three stated purposes:
(1) to guide its own researchers and managers as they conduct EPA’s research program,

(2) to assist scientists in other organizations and agencies as they plan research programs, and

(3) to inform the public of how EPA intends to generate scientific information to guide environmental decisions related to nanomaterials.

With the use of nanotechnology in the consumer and industrial sectors expected to increase
significantly in the future, nanotechnology offers society the promise of major benefits. The challenge for environmental protection is to ensure that, as nanomaterials are developed and used, unintended consequences of exposures to humans and ecosystems are prevented or minimized. In addition, knowledge concerning how to sustainably apply nanotechnology to detect, monitor, prevent, control, and clean up pollution is needed, says the NRS.

The strategy builds on the work of the Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications
Working Group (NSTC, 2008), and in the EPA’s Nanotechnology White Paper (EPA, 2007).

EPA’s strategy focuses on four areas:

􀂃 Identifying sources, fate, transport, and exposure
􀂃 Understanding human health and ecological effects to inform risk assessments and test methods
􀂃 Developing risk assessment approaches
􀂃 Preventing and mitigating risks
 

The key science questions described in the strategy document are intended to help decision makers answer the following questions:
􀂃 What nanomaterials, in what forms, are most likely to result in environmental exposure?
􀂃 What particular nanomaterial properties may raise toxicity concerns?
􀂃 Are nanomaterials with these properties likely to be present in environmental media or biological
systems at concentrations of concern, and what does this mean for risk?
􀂃 If we think that the answer to the previous question is “yes,” can we change properties or mitigate
exposure?

Readers of MassTortDefense know that nanotechnology is the process of manipulating materials 1 million times smaller than a millimeter. Nanomaterials, lighter and stronger than other materials, are used in hundreds of products already on the market, including many cosmetics and skin care products.  We have posted on this topic before.  Materials can take on new properties at the nano level, becoming stronger, better conductors of heat or electricity, for example.

The EPA's own office of research development is focusing its research on seven manufactured nanomaterial types: single-walled carbon nanotubes, multiwalled carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, cerium oxide, sliver, titanium dioxide and zero-valent iron. Carbon nanotubes are used in vehicles, sports equipment and electronics, while titanium dioxide is used in paints, cosmetics and sunscreens, as reported by EPA.  The Agency is also part of the government-wide National Nanotechnology Initiative.

PhRMA Issues New Principles on Clinical Trials

Readers of MassTortDefense know how the conduct and results of clinical trials can reach out and affect later product liability litigation: plaintiffs frequently assert that drug makers missed or ignored safety signals present in those trials. 

In reality, developing new therapies to treat disease and to improve quality of life is a long and complex process. And a critical part of that process is clinical research -- without clinical research studies, no new medicines could be made available to patients.

Last week PhRMA issued revised Principles on Conduct of Clinical Trials and Communication of Clinical Trial Results with a goal of helping assure that the clinical research conducted by pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies continues to be carefully conducted and that meaningful medical research results are communicated to healthcare professionals and patients.

Among the key changes in the updated Principles: Increased transparency about clinical trials for patients and healthcare professionals; enhanced standards for medical research authorship; and improved disclosure to better manage potential conflicts of interest in medical research.

PhRMA members have indeed had a longstanding commitment to sponsoring clinical research that fully complies with all legal and regulatory requirements. And actually, many different entities and individuals contribute to the safe and appropriate conduct of clinical research, including not only sponsoring companies but also regulatory agencies; investigative site staff and medical professionals who serve as clinical investigators; hospitals and other institutions where research is conducted; and Institutional Review Boards and Ethics Committees.

The key issues addressed are:
• Protecting Research Participants
• Conduct of Clinical Trials
• Ensuring Objectivity in Research
• Providing Information About Clinical Trials

Of particular note to my readers may be the document's call for consistency with standards of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors as journal guidelines for authorship;  under these, anyone who: (1) provides substantial contributions into the conception or design of a study, or data acquisition, or data analysis and interpretation; and/or (2) writes or revises the manuscript involving important intellectual content; and/or (3) has final approval of the version to be published, should receive appropriate recognition as an author when the manuscript is published. Conversely, individuals who do not contribute in this manner do not warrant authorship. We have posted about this issue before.

As always, the guidelines are purely voluntary, and even member companies are free to adopt their own best practices and mold general guidance to their particular situations.

 

FDA Issues Strategic Plan For Risk Communication

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week issued a Strategic Plan for Risk Communication, outlining the agency’s new efforts to disseminate public health information. The plan lays out a framework for the FDA to provide information about regulated products to health care professionals, patients, and consumers. The purpose of the document is to describe the FDA’s strategy for improving how the agency communicates about regulated products. The strategy is intended to guide program development and research planning in a dynamic environment, where rapidly evolving technologies enable patients and consumers to become increasingly involved in managing their health and well-being.

The plan defines three key areas – FDA’s science base, its operational capacity, and its policy and processes – in which new strategic actions might help improve the FDA’s communication about the risks and benefits of regulated products. The plan also identifies over 70 specific actions for the FDA to take over the next five years.

 They include:

  • Designing a series of surveys to assess the public’s understanding of, and satisfaction with, FDA communications about medical products
  • Producing a research agenda for public dissemination
  • Creating and maintaining a useful, easily accessible internal database of FDA and other relevant risk communication research
  • Developing an expert model to characterize tobacco-use related consumer decision-making and better understand the likely impact of FDA oversight of tobacco products
  • Developing a “library” of multi-media communications on safe food practices for general education purposes and for use with crisis communications concerning food contamination episodes

The plan reflects the FDA’s belief that risk communications must be adapted to the needs of different audiences and should be evaluated to ensure their effectiveness. The plan also focuses on improving two-way communication through enhanced partnerships with government and non-government organizations. FDA noted that the public may not understand the context within which FDA makes decisions, for example, about recalls of particular foods or medical products.  By helping the public better understand how it approves and/or recalls products, FDA hopes to complement its premarket review and postmarket actions. In the past, FDA’s communication efforts arguably were largely restricted to overseeing the key vehicle for communicating risk information to the public—the labeling of FDA-regulated products. The process of negotiating with product manufacturers about changes to labeling or decisions to recall a product can be lengthy. Now, as the Internet and emerging technologies both enable and feed the public’s demand for greater transparency and communication frequency, these protracted waiting periods are giving way to communication in real time. Thus, designing a contemporary risk communication strategy is critical, says the plan, to FDA’s efforts to realize its potential for effective protection and promotion of health, enabled by 21st century knowledge and technology.

The plan comes three years after a study by the Institute of Medicine opined that the FDA had fallen short of its task of making sure that the drugs that come to the market are safe for use.  The IOM's recommendations included clarification of the FDA's role in gathering and communicating
additional information on the risks and befits of marketed products.  The FDA then created a new risk communication advisory panel to develop best practices for communicating the risks and benefits to the public.


 

DRI Annual Meeting

Later this week, your faithful blogger is out of town for the annual DRI meeting, wearing another hat as the chair of the Mass Torts and Class Action group of DRI's Products Liability Committee.

DRI is the international organization of attorneys defending the interests of business and individuals in civil litigation. DRI provides numerous educational and informational resources to DRI members and offers many opportunities for liaison among defense trial lawyers. DRI's goals include: To teach and educate and to improve the skills of the defense law practitioner; to strive for improvement in the civil justice system; to be a counterpoint to the plaintiff's bar and seek balance in the justice system in the minds of potential jurors and on all fields where disputes are resolved; and to assist members in dealing with the economic realities of the defense law practice, including the competitive legal marketplace.


This Annual Meeting will celebrate DRI’s 50th anniversary and Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

You can join DRI here, and register for the annual meeting conference on site at the 2009 Annual Meeting: Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers 301 E North Water St Chicago, IL 60611.
 

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Jury Returns Defense Verdict in FEMA Trailer Trial

Last week a federal jury in Louisiana returned a defense verdict in a plaintiffs' suit over alleged exposure to formaldehyde fumes while living for several months in a FEMA-provided trailer. In Re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, Age v. Gulf Stream Coach Inc., No. 09-02892, E.D. La.). The government had made the trailer available after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the plaintiffs' home in 2005.

Plaintiffs sued manufacturer Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and installer Fluor Enterprises Inc., alleging that elevated levels of formaldehyde aggravated family members' asthma and increased their risk for getting cancer.  (FEMA was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit because of the two-year statute of limitations in cases brought against the federal government.)  They argued that Gulf Stream Coach, in expediting production of the housing units following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, used substandard materials and/or unsafe practices during the manufacturing process, which allegedly resulted in the temporary housing units containing higher than normal levels of formaldehyde. Plaintiffs alleged that Fluor's installation methods contributed to greater formaldehyde exposure.  They further charged that the FEMA trailer deviated from government safety specifications and that Gulf Stream failed to warn the government about the dangers of formaldehyde, which is found in construction materials as well as in glues and adhesives used in the manufacture of the units.

The claim is one of many hundreds of suits filed that are now part of the MDL, and one of the first five bellwether cases selected for trial. Readers of MassTortDefense will recall how Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The total damage of Hurricane Katrina has been estimated at $75 billion, while not-much-later Hurricane Rita caused $10 billion in damage. The government, through FEMA, moved individuals whose homes were lost or deemed uninhabitable into makeshift housing provided by the agency. Plaintiffs generally allege that the trailers had components that exposed them to dangerous and excessive levels of formaldehyde.

The defense here presented alternative causation evidence on the alleged respiratory issues, and noted that formaldehyde is found in safe levels in many products, including cosmetics, foods and shampoo. The defendants sold this trailer to the most sophisticated purchaser in the world, the United States government, argued the defense, and there is no duty to warn someone about something they know about already. The defense argued that Gulf Stream wasn't obligated to build a "perfect product."

The jury of five men and three women, after 8 days of testimony, decided that the trailer made by Gulf Stream Coach Inc. was not an “unreasonably dangerous” product under Louisiana law. Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt presided over the trial.  A likely issue on appeal will be the MDL court's decision to allow certain defendants to assert the government contractor defense.

FDA Releases Draft Guidance on Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies

The FDA has released its draft guidance on Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies, or REMS, laying out guidelines for how pharmaceutical companies should follow the plans, and describing the consequences for not doing so. The draft guidance for industry entitled ‘‘Format and Content of Proposed Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS), REMS Assessments, and Proposed REMS Modifications,’’  follows on the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of
2007 (FDAAA) which added new provisions to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act giving FDA the authority to require REMS.

For every drug approved by the FDA, the risks associated with its use are communicated through the labeling/product package insert. The manufacturer or the FDA may determine that a formal ongoing effort may be needed to monitor and manage risk issues, and thus that a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy is necessary to go beyond traditional product labeling to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks on an ongoing basis.  FDA may now require REMS for any NDA, ANDA, or BLA, at any stage of the product life-cycle.  REMS components include medication guides; patient package inserts; a communication plan for health care providers; elements to ensure safe use including requirements for those who prescribe, dispense, or use the drug; and a timetable for REMS submission.  About 60 medicines are currently sold with such plans.

We have posted before about the opportunities and pitfalls in REMS that could have a significant effect on future litigation involving the product. The REMS process may engender “bad documents” (a paper trail that casts the company or its products in a bad light). On the other hand, one of the common claims asserted in product litigation is that a manufacturer was aware of and failed to adequately warn about its product’s risk. As the REMS process is specifically designed to increase the effectiveness of warnings to the health care and patient communities, it may bolster a defense against the assertion that the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings.

The new draft guidance describes the format and content of a proposed risk evaluation and mitigation strategy, including REMS supporting documentation, the content of assessments and proposed modifications of approved REMS, what identifiers to use on REMS documents, and how to communicate with FDA about a REMS. The draft guidance was issued consistent with FDA’s good guidance practices regulation (21 CFR 10.115). The draft guidance, when finalized, will represent the agency’s current thinking on the format and content of proposed REMS, REMS assessments, and proposed REMS modifications.

REMS required by the FDA are subject to regulatory inspection and are enforceable under the FDCA as amended by FDAAA.  A drug may be considered misbranded if the responsible person for that drug fails to comply with a requirement of the approved strategy.  Firms that don't follow their plans will face fines of up to $10 million for a continued violation, according to the FDA guidance.
 

Second Circuit Issues Nuisance Decision That May Impact "Climate Change" Litigation

We posted here recently about proposed "climate change" legislation and how it may affect litigation. Now comes a  federal appeals court ruling allowing certain nuisance claims against major greenhouse gas emitters, a decision that may provide an impetus to more so-called climate change litigation.   See Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. Sept. 21, 2009). Interestingly, this is a two-judge decision as original panel member Judge is now Justice Sotomayor.

In 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide,  is causing and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources. The plaintiffs' theory is that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth's atmosphere, and that as a result of this trapped heat, the earth's temperature has risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future. Pointing to an alleged  “clear scientific consensus” that global warming has already begun to alter the natural world, plaintiffs predicted that it “will accelerate over the coming decades unless action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Because of the procedural posture (motion to dismiss), the court did not really describe the other side of the story, but readers of MassTortDefense know that change is what the climate is always doing as a result of the planet's orbital eccentricities, axial wobbles, solar brightness changes, cosmic ray flux, and multiple other factors. There are numerous plausible terrestrial drivers of climate changes too.  While global warming is a serious topic worthy of scientific study and political discussion, plaintiffs' "consensus" ignores that global mean temperature is only one part of climate, and may not be the best metric.  Moreover, the most important driver of the greenhouse effect are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is about 0.038% of the atmosphere, while water in its various forms ranges up to 4% of the atmosphere.  Scientists estimate that water accounts for about 90% of the Earth's greenhouse effect.  And humans are responsible for only about 3.4% of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually, the rest of it being natural.  When plaintiffs talk about the consensus, another major issue is that the "warming" numbers come not from measurements but from computer models -- with a huge range of assumptions. One is the so-called multiplier effect which assumes that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide causes a large increase in water vapor and thus a large rather than small temperature spike.

When thinking about "global climate" changes, we have also been sobered by the fact that humans have been trying to measure the temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature!

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the two judges held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced.

An important aspect of the ruling was that the the activity in Congress and the administrative agencies was not yet far enough along to displace common law relief. Federal common law is a necessary expedient to which federal courts may turn when compelled to consider federal questions which cannot be answered from federal statutes alone. But when Congress addresses a question previously governed by a decision rested on federal common law the need for lawmaking by federal courts disappears. The question whether a previously available federal common-law action has been displaced by federal statutory law involves an assessment of the scope of the legislation and whether the scheme established by Congress addresses the problem formerly governed by federal common law.  The court did note that it may happen that new federal laws and new federal regulations may in time pre-empt the field of federal common law of nuisance.  (EPA appears to be on the road on the road toward regulating greenhouse gases.) But at least until EPA makes more findings, for the purposes of a displacement analysis the Clean Air Act does not sufficiently regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated.  The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court rejected defendants challenge that the contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required.  The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms. 

The ruling may pave the way for more public nuisance suits, as it appears to enable private, nonprofit entities like the Sierra Club to pursue these cases. Allowing such a claim to proceed to discovery raises the potential stakes for every defendant currently or potentially facing public nuisance liability. And thus defendants may be faced with the difficult choice of working towards legislation or facing more of this kind of litigation.