Absence of Causation Evidence Leads to Reversal of Accutane Verdict

An appellate court in Florida last week overturned a verdict in favor of a plaintiff in the Accutane litigation.  Hoffmann-LaRoche Inc. v. Mason, 2009 WL 3430190 (Fla. 1st DCA 10/27/09). The opinion reminds readers of the crucial nature of the causation inquiry during discovery, especially in a warnings context.

Plaintiff developed severe acne while in middle school, which caused him to seek treatment from  a dermatologist. After the acne failed to respond to topical agents and antibiotics, Dr. Fisher prescribed Accutane, which was also later prescribed by plaintiff's family practitioner, Dr. Kenneth Counselman, until November 2000, at which time he was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (for which the epidemiology, BTW, does not show any association with the drug).

Plaintiff filed suit under theories of strict liability and negligent failure to warn alleging that Accutane's warning label was inadequate to warn his physicians about the risk of developing IBD. Specifically, plaintiff presented an expert witness who testified that the warning was insufficient because it allegedly did not adequately describe the relationship between Accutane and IBD. At the close of plaintiff's case, defendant moved for a directed verdict, arguing that plaintiff had failed to establish that his injury was proximately caused by any inadequacies in the warning. The trial court denied the motion after the jury returned its verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $7 million.

The issue on appeal was the adequacy of the warnings testimony, and on particular, the causation issue. 

While plaintiff presented testimony that the warning label was allegedly inadequate to warn physicians that Accutane use could lead to IBD, Dr. Fisher, the prescribing physician, testified that he understood the warning label to mean that there was at least a possibility of a causal relationship between Accutane and IBD. (Dr. Fisher testified that he understood the phrase “temporally associated” to mean that there was a possibility of a causal relationship; virtually all doctors understand that this means an association in time; you take the drug and later you get the effect).  He testified that he would still be willing to prescribe Accutane to his patients even if there was evidence showing that it could cause IBD in rare cases. He also testified that even if the warning label contained all of the additional information suggested by plaintiff's expert, he would still have prescribed the medication. Thus, any alleged inadequacies in Accutane's warning label could not have been the proximate cause of plaintiff's injury because Dr. Fisher understood that there was a possibility that use of the drug could lead to plaintiff developing IBD. And he made an informed decision to prescribe the drug for this patient despite this risk.  Dr. Counselman admitted that he did not consult a prescribing reference manual before prescribing the drug, and thus a different warning would not have mattered to him. 

While a jury somehow found that the alleged failure to provide an adequate warning was a substantial contributing cause of plaintiff's development of IBD, plaintiff actually presented no evidence to establish proximate cause. The trial court erred in denying the motion for a directed verdict. Again, because plaintiff presented no evidence from either prescribing physician that a differently worded warning would have resulted in either physician not prescribing Accutane for his extreme acne, plaintiff failed to establish that the allegedly deficient warning was the proximate cause of his injury; judgment reversed.

 

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