State Supreme Court Upholds Verdict For Device Maker

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently took a second look at a case offering guidance on the application of the learned intermediary defense, and affirming a judgment for pacemaker manufacturer Medtronic Inc. See Hurley v. Heart Physicians PC, 298 Conn. 371, 2010 WL 3488962 (9/14/10).

The plaintiff was born with a congenital complete heart block condition that interfered with her heart's capacity to produce a safe heart rhythm. When she was seven days old, her physicians implanted a cardiac pacemaker manufactured by the defendant. Every few years, plaintiff received a new pacemaker manufactured by the defendant, allowing her to grow and live a normal life. When the plaintiff was fourteen years old, her pacemaker's elective replacement indicator signaled that the pacemaker battery was nearing the end of its life cycle and was wearing down. The plaintiff's cardiologist asked a representative of the defendant, to attend an examination of the plaintiff and to test the battery in her pacemaker. In so doing, in part because of issues about replacing the entire unit, the rep allegedly presented to the doctor the option of lowering the rate. He explained that, by taking the rate from sixty to forty paces per minute, it would give them more time before a device would hit the "end point," and thus more time to work on the "replacement situation."

The approach was taken, but a few weeks later the plaintiff went into cardiac arrest while at school, and allegedly suffered permanent brain damage.  Plaintiff sued, and the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the device company on the failure to warn claim, based on the learned intermediary doctrine. The state supreme court reversed this judgment with respect to the plaintiff's product liability claim, finding that an issue of material fact existed as to whether the rep's words and actions were in derogation of the pacemaker's technical manual --whether he undercut the warning that was given. After remand, a jury trial was held, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. The trial court rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict, and this (second) appeal followed.

The plaintiff's claim before the trial court (both times) was based on the assertion that the defendant's representative had made statements to plaintiff's treating physician, and had engaged in conduct (recommending that the pacemaker's function level be reduced), which nullified the warnings regarding battery replacement that were contained in the pacemaker's technical manual.  The plaintiff claimed that, because the statements and conduct nullified the pacemaker's adequate published warnings about the risks inherent in setting the pacemaker at a reduced level, the defendant had, net, failed to properly warn her of the potential risks associated with reducing the pacemaker's function in lieu of replacing the battery.  Defendant contended that the plaintiff's physician was a learned intermediary and stood in the best position to evaluate and to warn the plaintiff of any risks associated with reducing the pacemaker's function and, as a result, it was not their obligation to warn the plaintiff.

Concerning the trial after remand, plaintiff claimed that the trial court improperly required her to prove that the rep's advice and conduct “actually contradicted,” and therefore “vitiated” and “nullified” the warnings in the manual. She contended that she should have been required to prove only that his actions were “inconsistent” with the manual, which she contended was a less onerous requirement than the one applied by the trial court.

On appeal again, the state supreme court found that the trial court properly reviewed its mandate within the context of the entire opinion and proceeded properly with a jury trial in order to secure a factual finding by the jury as to whether the advice and conduct were in accordance with the pacemaker's manual. The trial court based the relevant jury charge and the jury interrogatory on the factual issue that it had determined could not be resolved as a matter of law. Indeed, the trial court carefully tracked the language used in the first appeal.  The relevant interrogatory asked the jury to determine whether “the [p]laintiff [has] proven by a fair preponderance of the evidence that [rep], by his oral communications to [doctor] that turning down the pacemaker was an option, accompanied by his physical adjustment of the pacemaker to forty paces per minute, actually contradicted the technical manual thereby vitiating and nullifying the manual's warnings....” 

The court disagreed with the plaintiff that the trial court imposed a heightened burden of proof because, first, the trial court directly cited what the supreme court had determined to be the remaining triable factual issue, and, second, the words “contradict” (used by the trial court)and “inconsistent”  (used by the supreme court) are interchangeable.  In this context, the words are synonymous, said the court.  No error in the instruction, so no reversal of the jury verdict.

 

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