Digitek Class Action Denied in MDL

The federal judge in the multidistrict litigation concerning the heart drug Digitek has denied class certification in the MDL's six remaining class actions.  In re: Digitek Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1968 (S.D. W. Va.).

Quick history. Digitek® is a trade-name for a drug called digoxin. Digoxin was approved by the FDA to treat various heart problems. At some point, a handful of non-conforming dose tablets were found in a lot of 4.8 million tablets.  Defendant initiated a voluntary Class I nationwide product recall.  A flood of civil actions were instituted in state and federal courts across the country. The plaintiffs claimed a variety of injuries and losses resulting from the recalled Digitek®. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation established an MDL proceeding.

The MDL court addressed several overlapping motions for class certification. The class representatives each sought some kind of economic loss class certified pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Two of the class complaints sought only a single-state class. Others sought a nationwide class of all persons residing in the United States who purchased Digitek® pursuant to prescription, during the time period when the recalled Digitek® was manufactured, or sold, who suffered economic losses, including, but not limited to, payments for recalled Digitek®, out-of-pocket expenses for diagnostic testing, medical visits, and/or new prescriptions, as a result of having received recalled Digitek®.

Generally, the plaintiffs focused not on the distinct and highly individualized alleged injuries to the class, but -- as is typical -- on defendants’ alleged misconduct that led to the recall.  In doing so, the plaintiffs tried to paint New Jersey as the nerve center for certification purposes. In fact, they said New Jersey law should control all of the potentially hundreds of thousands of class members’ claims and recoveries throughout the United States. They thus downplayed the individual issues that would arise, including choice of law. They stressed instead that the damages  allegedly suffered by each individual class member were modest and, absent a certified class, millions of consumers would be left without remedy.

The court first addressed the choice of law issues in a nationwide class, as the state in which each claimant was injured has an overriding interest in having its laws applied to redress any wrong done to its citizens.  For example, state consumer protection laws vary considerably, and courts must respect these differences rather than just apply one state's law to sales in other states with different rules.  In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 425 F.3d 1116, 1120 (8th Cir. 2005).  See generally Kanner, Consumer Class Actions After CAFA, 56 Drake L. Rev. 303, 334 (2008).  Unjust enrichment law varies considerably throughout the United States as well.  Tyler v. Alltel Corp., 265 F.R.D. 415, 422 (E.D. Ark. 2010).  The court reached the same conclusion with the express and implied warranty claims.  See, e.g., Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016-17 (D.C. Cir.1986).  The differences impact the class certification factors of typicality, predominance, and manageability.

Putting aside the choice of law issue (that is, assuming a class of New Jersey residents alone and applying only New Jersey law to their claims), the court found that common issues still did not predominate. Violation of the NJ Consumer Fraud Act is subject to proof of a number of
elements, including that plaintiff suffered an ascertainable loss as a result of the unlawful conduct; and a causal relationship between the unlawful practice and the loss sustained.  That is, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act affords a right to monetary relief only if there has been an  ascertainable loss in consequence of the consumer receiving something other than what he bargained for, and losing the benefits of the product which he was led to believe he had purchased.  Plaintiffs' contention here that everyone in the class sustained an ascertainable loss presumes that the drug was worthless. But the drug was enormously beneficial to many patients; most got the right dose. Those patients presumably got their money's worth and suffered no economic injury. And the question whether an individual class member got his or her money's worth is inherently individual. Indeed, it involves very much the same questions as would a claim for money damages for personal injury.

This was seen in the differences between the class representatives: one returned Digitek® following the recall. But he received, in return, replacement digoxin at no charge. Another wanted a co-payment for a doctor visit that he had post-recall. He admitted, though, that the appointment was scheduled pre-recall. If certification were granted, this type of fact-intensive investigation and specific explanation would likely be necessary for all claimants to assure that their claims were compensation worthy.

The individual questions also proliferate to the extent the jury is ultimately required to determine which class members received defective Digitek® and which did not. In other words, it may ultimately be inappropriate, said the court, to treat all the recalled Digitek® as a single “defective” product for purposes of making the determination of whether it was unsafe.  Thus product identification would have individual, as opposed to collective, hallmarks.

Another individual issue was the vast array of individualized damages the representatives were seeking. The plaintiffs tried to sweep this concern aside. But even if not controlling,  individualized damage determinations cut against class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).  Ward v.
Dixie Nat. Life Ins. Co.
, 595 F.3d 164, 180 (4th Cir. 2010).

Finally, the court confronted the individualized process of sorting out those potential class members who were already fully compensated by the defendants' refund process. Mitigation was  another highly individualized matter.  Certification appropriately denied. 

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