Appeals Court Vacates Verdict On Exclusion of Context Evidence

Comic Dimitri Martin notes, "I'm sorry" and "I apologize" mean the same thing -- unless you are speaking to the widow at a funeral.  The lesson? Context is key.

The New Jersey appeals court last week vacated a jury verdict for a woman who used the acne drug Accutane and allegedly developed inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).  See Kendall v. Hoffmann-LaRoche Inc.,No. A-2633-08T3 (N.J. Super. Ct.,  8/5/10). The court found that the trial court erred by restricting the defendant's use of evidence concerning the incidence of IBD in the general population to set a proper context.

Readers know that defendants frequently want to put evidence in a fuller context and give the jury a full picture.  Plaintiffs seem much less concerned that a jury will take evidence (a word in an email, a phrase in a memo, a point of data) out of context.

Some background- In 1982 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Accutane to treat recalcitrant nodular acne. Patients using Accutane have reported a number of common side effects. The alleged side effect that was centrally at issue in this case was the alleged propensity of Accutane to cause patients to suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. The exact scientific causes of IBD have not been conclusively established, said the court. IBD has been statistically associated with several factors, including family history, prior infections, frequent use of antibiotics, and possibly the use of contraceptives and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Plaintiff underwent several courses of treatment. She had taken four courses of Accutane before she developed IBD, with no apparent gastrointestinal effects. Her medical records indicated that plaintiff's mother informed the treating physician that plaintiff had been diagnosed with an IBD, and that disease "has nothing to do with her Accutane use, according to her G.I. doctors."  Plaintiff took two courses of Accutane after she developed IBD, with "no evidence of exacerbation" of the
IBD.  But in early 2005, plaintiff suffered from excessive diarrhea, bowel incontinence, bloody diarrhea, fatigue, cramping, and abdominal pain. As 2005 progressed, plaintiff's symptoms
worsened, leading to surgery.

Plaintiff contends that if she had been warned that Accutane use could cause, or exacerbate, her IBD, she would not have taken the drug. She alleged that there was no specific reference to IBD, or that Accutane use could cause IBD, in any of the materials she personally received from 1997 to 2003.  However, prior to the use of Accutane by plaintiff, defendant revised the various warnings that it supplied concerning the drug. Roche amended the "WARNINGS" section of the Accutane package insert provided to physicians to include language about Inflammatory Bowel Disease.  In a "Dear Doctor" letter, dated August 1998, which was sent to board-certified dermatologists, Roche warned that patients taking Accutane should be monitored for IBD. Roche subsequently revised its product warnings for Accutane, with FDA approval, in 2000 and again in 2002. Plaintiff's expert opined, not surprisingly, that even the amended warnings contained in the later label were inadequate.

The appeal presented several issues, including statute of limitations, but for our readers we want to focus on the argument that the trial court abused its discretion in preventing Roche from adducing evidence as to the number of Accutane users and in limiting Roche's arguments to the jury concerning such data.

In opening, in her trial proofs, and in her counsel's closing arguments to the jury, plaintiff relied heavily upon the number of adverse case reports for Accutane and other quantitative evidence as
proof of at least two critical issues: (1) that a patient's use of Accutane can cause IBD and other gastrointestinal problems, and (2) that Roche allegedly acted too slowly and ineffectively in
responding to those risks with more forceful product warnings. Roche contended that the trial court unfairly curtailed its ability at trial to defend that numbers-oriented evidence and advocacy.

Prior to the trial in this case, plaintiff moved to bar defense counsel from presenting certain proofs and arguments concerning the background incident rates of IBD in the general population. That makes complete sense; how often do people get the disease when they aren't exposed? But, in
essence, plaintiff argued those general background rates are unreliable because symptoms of IBD are allegedly frequently under-reported.  The trial court agreed and precluded Roche from referring at trial to the background rates of IBD in the general population to disprove causation. The order did allow Roche only to present "factual testimony" to show that it acted reasonably based on such background rates, and only if "the numbers are not told to the jury."  The trial court did not, however, impose any restrictions upon plaintiff in her own use of numerical proofs at trial, other than a restriction against using the numbers in a specific formula.

Thus, during opening statements, plaintiff's counsel noted that she would present proof that Roche was aware of at least 104 reported cases of IBD, of which thirty-three cases were supposedly given a causality rating of possible or probable by the company. Plaintiff's counsel also cited in opening argument to an internal Roche report supposedly stating that, in 2002, there had been sixty-four reports of Crohn's disease (BTW, a form of IBD with no epidemiological link to the drug in any reputable study).  The trial court ruled that Roche could not argue that a comparison of those AERs vs. the background rate was a scientifically valid way to help evaluate the risk of a drug. Defendant was also curtailed in cross-examination of plaintiff's labeling expert,  particularly with regard to how Roche had analyzed certain data on Accutane that it had in fact presented to the FDA.

During the defense case in chief, the trial court did loosen her ruling and did permit a defense expert to explain to the jury that, in calculating the number of IBD cases in the exposed population, Roche had assessed the reported adverse events. Because it was suspected such events are under-reported, Roche already  factored in under-reporting. In calendar year 1988, when approximately one million patients took Accutane, there were only seven reports of IBD. From 1982 to 1999, when more than 32 million patients took the drug, there were only 206 case reports of IBD.

(Readers know that an adverse event report does not establish a causal relationship between the drug and a particular event. The FDA itself has warned that for any given ADE case, there is no certainty that the suspected drug caused the event. This is because physicians and consumers are encouraged to report all suspected ADEs, not just those that are known or even suspected to be caused by the drug. The adverse event may have been related to an underlying disease for which the drug was given, to other concomitant drug usage, or may have occurred by chance at the same time the suspect drug was administered. The courts have characterized ADEs as “complaints called in by product consumers without any medical controls or scientific assessment.” McClain v. Metabolife Intern., Inc., 401 F. 3d 1233, 1250 (11th Cir. 2005). Because the reporting system is not subject to scientific controls, data from it is subject to various statistical biases. It is likely that the mix of reported events does not represent an accurate sampling of those events that can occur while a person is taking any medication. Moreover, medical or media attention can stimulate reporting in a distorted manner, and known adverse reactions are more likely to be diagnosed and reported than others. See DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 791 F. Supp. 1042, 1050 (D. N.J. 1992), aff’d 6 F. 3d 778 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1044 (1994) (ADEs “have inherent biases as they are second-or-third hand reports, are affected by medical or mass media attention, and are subject to other distortions.”).)

However, the trial court here gave the jury a limiting instruction on this evidence that defendant on appeal argued was especially harmful, by accentuating to the jurors that Roche's internal corporate use of background numbers was supposedly, at least in some respects, "unscientific."  Defendant argued that the trial court's directive to the jurors that at least one use of the background numbers was not "scientifically accepted," placed a prejudicial and unnecessary spin on the proofs, to Roche's detriment.

The appellate court concluded it lacked confidence that this trial, when considered as a whole, provided a full and fair opportunity for Roche to contest, present, and advocate the relevant "numbers" evidence. Specifically, the trial court erred in forbidding Roche from placing into
evidence (and arguing) statistics about Accutane usage that could have made Roche's conduct and labeling decisions appear far more reasonable to the jury. The number of users evidence  could have given the jurors very relevant contextual background, and possibly led the jury to view differently Roche's pacing in upgrading the risk information on Accutane's label and package insert.  Even accepting, for the sake of argument, plaintiff's contention that adverse events are heavily under-reported, the quantity of actual users of a drug logically is a significant part of the
numerical landscape. At a minimum, the actual usage data for Accutane would go to "safety signaling" concerns, i.e., whether Roche had received sufficiently frequent adverse "signals" to take corrective action. Had Roche been allowed to fully present the statistics on users and other related counter-proofs, the jury would have had a fuller and more balanced picture of the data bearing upon the company's conduct in changing its label. See McCarrell v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., No. A-3280-07 (App. Div. Mar. 12, 2009), certif. denied, 199 N.J. 518 (2009).

The court recognized that the trial court's attempted conceptual boundary between using background data for purposes of evaluating "signals" and company conduct, but not for "causation," is a technical and somewhat elusive distinction. Increased reports of a medical condition occurring in a drug's users, as contrasted with the general population, may well provoke a drug maker to strengthen its labeling, even if such adverse reports may suggest only an association and not that the product is, in fact, "causing" such adverse results. In any event, the court of appeals felt there was no need here to draw the boundaries between causation and conduct with precision or with definiteness. The point remains that, even accepting, arguendo, as reasonable the trial court's prohibition upon Roche using background numbers to disprove causation (because of a concern about reporting), the trial as a whole did not provide Roche with a sufficient opportunity to make full and legitimate uses of such contextual evidence as part of its trial advocacy.  In particular, the jury instruction issued by the court went too far in characterizing to the jurors the use of background numbers to prove or disprove causation as "unscientific."

The case was remanded for a new trial.  And on remand, the defense will not be foreclosed from attempting to use the numbers evidence to show not only that the company acted reasonably in the manner in which it developed and modified the Accutane product warnings, but also to attempt (if it chooses to do so) to disprove general causation (along with the multiple epidemiological studies refuting causation).

Roche has successfully defended IBD claims in the federal cases brought to date, obtaining dismissals in each case that have been affirmed on appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

 

FDA Proposes That Adverse Event Reports Be Submitted Electronically

The Food and Drug Administration last week proposed new rules that would require adverse event reports related to approved devices, drugs and biologic products to be submitted electronically.  (Readers of MassTortDefense know how plaintiffs in mass tort litigation will attempt to use such reports to show the defendant company missed or ignored a "signal" of a safety issue with the product.)

When a drug or biological product is approved and enters the market, the product is introduced to a larger patient population in settings that may be different from clinical trials. New information generated during the post-marketing period can offer further insight into the benefits and risks of the product, and thus evaluation of this information is important to ensure the safe use of these products.

The FDA receives information regarding post-marketing adverse drug experiences from safety reports submitted to the agency. For nearly 35 years, FDA has received these post-marketing safety reports on paper. In recent years, some companies have voluntarily submitted these reports to
the agency in electronic format. Data from both electronic and paper reports are entered into FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS) database. AERS is a computerized information database designed to support FDA’s post-marketing safety surveillance program for drug and biological products. The AERS database is used to store and analyze data received in post-marketing safety reports.

The FDA is proposing to amend its post-marketing safety reporting regulations to require that persons subject to mandatory reporting requirements submit safety reports in an electronic format that FDA can process, review, and archive. FDA is taking this action to improve the agency’s systems for collecting and analyzing post-marketing safety reports. The proposed change would help the agency, it believes, to more rapidly review post-marketing safety reports, identify emerging safety problems, and disseminate safety information in support of FDA’s public health mission. In addition, the proposed amendments would be a key element in harmonizing FDA’s post-marketing safety reporting regulations with international standards for the electronic submission of safety
information.

The FDA said the change will expedite the agency’s access to safety information and provide data to the agency in a format that would support more efficient and comprehensive reviews, and would enhance its ability to rapidly communicate information about suspected problems to health care
providers, consumers, applicants, and sponsors.

The agency says it is mindful of the security issues related to the confidentiality of data when safety
reports are submitted electronically, and will be prepared to respond promptly to changing
technology to ensure secure transmission of data.

State Appellate Accutane Decision Reverses Verdict

The New Jersey Superior Court issued an interesting decision in the Accutane litigation last week.  See  McCarrell v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., And Roche Laboratories, Inc., 2009 WL 614484 (N.J.Super.A.D.) (March 12, 2009).

Plaintiff alleged that as a result of taking Accutane for an acne condition, he developed inflammatory bowel disease ("IBD"). The IBD allegedly led to the surgical removal of his colon and other serious medical complications. A jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor on his product liability claim against Roche, but not on his consumer fraud claim, and awarded him compensatory damages.

By order dated May 2, 2005, the state Supreme Court had designated all pending and future statewide actions involving Accutane as a mass tort.  Thus, all Accutane cases, including plaintiff's lawsuit, were transferred to Atlantic County to be heard on a coordinated basis. Discovery in the state cases proceeded in tandem with discovery in the federal Accutane multidistrict ("MDL") litigation.

On appeal from the jury verdict, Roche specifically argued, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting the opinion testimony of plaintiff's causation expert Dr. Sachar because his methodology was unreliable and thus improper under  N.J.R.E. 702; and that the trial court denied Roche a fair trial in admitting the testimony about causality assessments based on Accutane ADEs, but in restricting the defense in presenting competing quantitative proofs to put the ADEs in context, including the actual number of Accutane users.

On the issue whether Dr. Sachar's causation testimony was sufficiently reliable in the field of scientific research to be admitted, the court noted that in New Jersey the standard of review of such
rulings under Rule 702 is a narrow one. "In reviewing a trial court's evidential ruling, an appellate court is limited to examining the decision for abuse of discretion."

On the merits, the defendant objected to the expert's heavy reliance on animal studies. The NJ  Supreme Court has previously recognized that animal studies can be an accepted scientific method to study the safety and efficacy of drugs.  Even though the dose administered in the animal studies was far different than the medicinal dose, "trained experts commonly extrapolate from existing data." Gen. Elec. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146 (1997). In assessing the results of animal studies, which frequently involve high doses, experts should be careful to consider the dose-response differential between animals and humans. Magistrini v. One Hour Martinizing
Dry Cleaning
, 180 F. Supp. 2d 584, 593 (D.N.J. 2002), aff'd, 68 Fed. App'x. 356 (3d Cir. 2003). (Readers also know that the biological differences between commonly used animals such as rats and humans make the models inappropriate for many comparisons, regardless of dose.)

Defendants also challenged the use of anecdotal case reports as a basis for the causation opinion. The court recognized that "[c]ausal attribution based on case studies must be regarded with caution." Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Sci. Evidence 497 (2d ed. 2000).
That is so because case reports typically reflect reported observations, and do not themselves contain scientific analyses. For instance, case reports may lack controls, may fail to screen out alternative causes, and may omit relevant facts about the patient's condition that can be pertinent to a causation assessment. Consequently, a number of courts have concluded that anecdotal case reports are not a scientifically reliable basis for an expert's opinion on causation.

Nevertheless, some other courts have allowed consideration of case reports as an acceptable basis for trying to show causation, particularly when accompanied by other reliable scientific evidence. New Jersey courts have previously upheld the admission of expert testimony that has relied, at least in part, upon case reports or comparable anecdotal evidence. The court also found significant that the case reports here included dechallenge and rechallenge reports. Dechallenge and rechallenge reports are a type of case report. Dunn v. Sandoz Pharms. Corp., 275 F. Supp. 2d 672, 682 (M.D.N.C. 2003). Such reports have limitations, but have been considered useful in some contexts in ascertaining causation because they measure a patient's reaction to a drug, said the appellate court.  (Readers will note that the dechallenge/rechallenge concept appears to make little sense when the effect of the drug is supposedly a permanent disease!)

The New Jersey court recognized it was issuing a causation decision contrary to the ruling in the Accutane MDL.  The state court declined to follow the federal court's decision because (1) the causation expert in the federal case was not Dr. Sachar, and that particular expert's methodology was not as "demonstrably sound" as that of Dr. Sachar; (2) the standards for expert admissibility under N.J.R.E. 702 are not identical to F.R.E. 702; and (3) the testimonial record in this case, having proceeded to trial, was more developed than it was in the Florida case on a pretrial motion, lending greater confidence to a conclusion to sustain the trial judge's decision to admit Dr. Sachar's testimony.

Defendant also challenged the expert's testimony about the company's alleged intent and motive and mind-set, a typical plaintiffs' tactic in mass torts.  Totally improper, highly prejudicial, and ignored by some courts because they seem overwhelmed by the plaintiff's characterization of the defendant's conduct.  Well-reasoned opinions exclude such testimony. See In re Baycol Prods. Litig., 532 F. Supp. 2d 1029, 1053 (D.Minn. 2007) (observing that "[p]ersonal views on corporate ethics and morality are not expert opinions"); In re Rezulin Prods. Liab. Litig., 309 F. Supp. 2d 531, 546 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (holding that the objected-to opinions of expert witnesses on intent, motives, or state of mind of a corporation had no basis in any relevant body of knowledge or expertise).  Here, the court seemed not to understand the impact and purpose of this improper testimony, finding that although Dr. Sachar's testimony sharply criticized Roche, his criticisms did not rise to "such an inflammatory level" that would cause the appeals court to find an abuse of discretion by the trial court in not excluding it.  The issue is not only a Rule 403 prejudice issue; there is a fundamental relevance issue, and a serious issue about fit, foundation, and reliability.

Finally, there was what has been described as the "numbers" issue. The issue refers to the fact that the trial court allowed plaintiff's witnesses and counsel to refer, on repeated occasions, to the number of adverse incidents reported from Accutane users or from other sources while, at the same time, the court restricted Roche's attempt at trial to place those adverse numbers into any larger quantitative context. Specifically, the judge precluded Roche witnesses from more
fully informing the jury about the large number of persons who had taken Accutane before it was prescribed to plaintiff in 1995, and the comparative significance of those figures.

The court ultimately concludes that it was unfair to Roche for the trial court to have precluded such "numbers" counter-proof and that the court abused its discretion on this evidentiary issue. Had Roche been allowed to present the statistics showing five million Accutane users and other related counter-proofs, the jury would have had a fuller and more balanced picture of the data bearing upon the company's actions in changing its label. "Principles of completeness and fairness warranted the presentation of this contextual information to the fact-finder."

 

 

FDA To Hold Workshop On "Sentinel" Initiative

The Food and Drug Administration is holding a public workshop entitled Sentinel Initiative: Structure, Function, and Scope. The workshop is co-sponsored by the FDA and the eHealth Initiative Foundation, and convened by the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution. The workshop is intended to bring together academia, government, patient, consumer, and provider groups, health care data owners, the pharma industry; and other interested organizations for an update on the current status of the Sentinel Initiative, and to allow for comment from all interested stakeholders.

In May, 2008, FDA launched the “Sentinel Initiative” – a new program with the goal of creating and implementing the Sentinel System--a national, integrated, electronic system for monitoring medical product safety.

The Sentinel System is being designed to enable FDA to pose targeted queries (consistent with privacy and security safeguards) of patient registry data, insurance claims data, and other large health care information databases, for information about medical products. FDA says this new system will strengthen the agency's ability to monitor the performance of a product throughout its entire life cycle, thus enhancing the protection and promotion of public health.

FDA's current post-market surveillance programs generate very important new risk information, but the adverse event reporting system depends on health care professionals and patients first recognizing a potential association between an adverse effect and a medical product, and then report it to FDA or the manufacturer. Some adverse events may never get reported.

Date and Time: The public workshop will be held on December 16, 2008, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Location: The public workshop will be held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert Street NW., Washington, DC 20008.
 

Creating an advanced surveillance system like Sentinel was one of the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in its 2006 report on ways to improve the safe use of drugs. The Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 included provisions that call for the development of such a system. FDA believes patients will benefit because the agency will be able to identify potential problems sooner, better understand those problems, and ultimately, help health professionals and patients use medical products more safely.

The overall initiative is described in an FDA white paper titled, “The Sentinel Initiative—A National Strategy for Monitoring Medical Product Safety.” 
 

It is interesting to speculate about the potential impact of the system, especially on products liability litigation. Medicare collects data typically only when a medical provider is seeking payment. This claims data is less complete, and potentially less accurate than actual patient health records. Thus, utilizing Medicare data to assess health outcomes of drug use may be problematic. Of course, the new system doesn’t change the reality that sometimes patients suffer adverse events after receiving drugs because they are sick, not because the drug has a problem. And Medicare recipients use an average of 28 prescriptions in a year, compared with an average among all Americans of something like 12 prescriptions. Sorting out which medicine caused any single problem – if any did -- can be difficult.

In mass tort litigation, as readers of MassTortDefense know, plaintiffs frequently will attack defendants’ AER system, the resources devoted, the quality of the reporting. Even more frequently, plaintiffs will allege that the AE reports revealed a “signal” far sooner and far more clearly than the company thought; that the defendant missed or ignored the signal about potential adverse events in order to avoid the financial impact of a new label with a stronger warning. But if the FDA will eventually be able to query databases of tens of millions of patients almost simultaneously, presumably it will no longer have to wait for reports from the field, and the allegations of “missed signals” may lose all force.

To assess the accuracy of the Sentinel system, the FDA will initially conduct studies of drug side-effects that are already well known. And despite the potential issues, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America supported the FDA initiative, because it will allow regulators and health care professionals to move from reliance on voluntary reporting of side effects to a more proactive monitoring of medicines.
 

FDA Releases First Quarterly Safety Signals Report

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has posted on its website its first quarterly report listing certain drugs that are being evaluated for potential safety issues. FDA posted the reports in accordance with Section 921 of the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, which, among other things, directs FDA to inform the public each quarter of new safety information or potential signals of serious risk, based on the agency's review of adverse event reports. Specifically, FDA is to "conduct regular, bi-weekly screening of the Adverse Event Reporting System [AERS] database and post a quarterly report on the Adverse Event Reporting System Web site of any new safety information or potential signal of a serious risk identified by Adverse Event Reporting System within the last quarter."

FDA released the first quarterly report, listing 20 drugs. The information is provided based on a review of reports in AERS. The FDA staff in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) and Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) regularly examine the AERS database as part of routine safety monitoring. When a potential signal of a possible risk is identified from AERS data, it is entered as a possible safety issue into CDER's Document Archiving, Reporting, and Regulatory Tracking System (DARRTS) or into CBER's Therapeutics and Blood Safety Branch Safety Signal Tracking (SST) system. Potential signals of serious risks are normally based upon groups of AERS reports.

Drugs that appear on the agency's new "Potential Signals of Serious Risks/New Safety Information," are thus identified by FDA reviewers based on reports from the FDA's AERS database, which contains millions of reports of adverse events submitted to FDA by drug manufacturers, health care professionals and patients. For a drug to appear on this report, an FDA reviewer will have determined there is some reason to examine a drug more closely based on either the seriousness or number of AERS reports associated with the drug. The drugs for which issues have been identified are under evaluation for the listed potential risk. Each year, FDA receives about 400,000 reports of adverse events that people experienced around the same time period in which they were taking a drug.

An adverse event report does not establish a causal relationship between the drug and a particular event. The FDA itself has warned that for any given ADE case, there is no certainty that the suspected drug caused the event. This is because physicians and consumers are encouraged to report all suspected ADEs, not just those that are known or even suspected to be caused by the drug. The adverse event may have been related to an underlying disease for which the drug was given, to other concomitant drug usage, or may have occurred by chance at the same time the suspect drug was administered. The courts have characterized ADEs as “complaints called in by product consumers without any medical controls or scientific assessment.” McClain v. Metabolife Intern., Inc., 401 F. 3d 1233, 1250 (11th Cir. 2005). Because the reporting system is not subject to scientific controls, data from it is subject to various statistical biases. It is likely that the mix of reported events does not represent an accurate sampling of those events that can occur while a person is taking any medication. Moreover, medical or media attention can stimulate reporting in a distorted manner, and known adverse reactions are more likely to be diagnosed and reported than others. See DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 791 F. Supp. 1042, 1050 (D. N.J. 1992), aff’d 6 F. 3d 778 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1044 (1994) (ADEs “have inherent biases as they are second-or-third hand reports, are affected by medical or mass media attention, and are subject to other distortions.”).

MassTortDefense notes, that in contrast to how plaintiff attorneys seek to use the adverse event reports, or how the media has portrayed this new list, the appearance of a drug on this list does not mean that FDA has concluded that the drug has the listed risk. It means that FDA has identified a potential safety issue, but does not mean that FDA has identified a causal relationship between the drug and the listed risk. It may be too early to know whether there is an actual safety problem, and FDA’s analysis may ultimately conclude that there is no safety problem. If after further evaluation the FDA determines that the drug is associated with the risk, it may take a variety of actions including requiring changes to the labeling of the drug, requiring development of a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS), or gathering additional data to better characterize the risk. FDA also emphasizes that the listing of a drug does not mean that FDA is suggesting that prescribers should not prescribe the drug or that patients taking the drug should stop taking the medication. 

Thus, the new quarterly reports should not change the existing view of the majority of courts that adverse event reports are ordinarily too unreliable to be used as proof of causation. See McClain, 401 F. 3d at 1250; Hollander v. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Corp., 289 F. 3d 1193, 1211 (10th Cir. 2001); cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1088 (2002) (characterizing the case reports before the court as unreliable evidence of causation); Haggerty v. Upjohn Co., 950 F.Supp. 1160, 1165 (S.D. Fla. 1996), aff’d, 158 F. 3d 588 (11th Cir. 1998); In re Accutane Products Liability Litig., 511 F. Supp.2d 1288, 1298-1303 (M.D. Fla. 2007); Benkwith v. Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., 467 F. Supp. 2d 1316, 1327 (M.D. Ala. 2006); Leathers v. Pfizer, Inc., 233 F.R.D. 687, 694 (N.D. Ga. 2006). See also Glastetter v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 252 F. 3d 986, 990-91 (8th Cir. 2001) (“Case reports make little attempt to screen out alternative causes for a patient’s condition. They frequently lack analysis. And they often omit relevant facts about the patient’s condition.”); Dunn v. Sandoz Pharmaceutical Corp., 275 F. Supp.2d 672, 682 (M.D.N.C. 2003) (“Case reports are not scientific proof of causation.”); Caraker v. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Corp., 172 F. Supp. 2d 1046, 1050 (S.D. Ill. 2001) (rejecting expert opinions insofar as they relied upon case reports); Nelson v. American Home Products Corp., 92 F. Supp. 2d 954, 969 (W.D. Mo. 2000) (“At most, these case reports relay a basis for scientific hypotheses; they do not demonstrate a causal link sufficient for admission to a finder of fact in court.”); DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 791 F. Supp. 1042, 1051 (D. N.J. 1992), aff’d, 6 F. 3d 778 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1044 (1994) (ADEs “are not of a type of data that are reasonably relied upon by experts in the fields of epidemiology and public health.”); Siharath v. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Corp., 131 F. Supp. 2d 1347, 1359-63 (N.D. Ga. 2001); Cartwright v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 936 F. Supp. 900, 905 (M.D. Fla. 1996).
 

FDA Launches Sentinel Initiative

On May 22, 2008, FDA launched the “Sentinel Initiative” – a new program with the goal of creating and implementing the Sentinel System--a national, integrated, electronic system for monitoring medical product safety.


The Sentinel System, once in place, will enable FDA to pose targeted queries (consistent with privacy and security safeguards) of patient registry data, insurance claims data, and other large health care information databases, for information about medical products. FDA says this new system will strengthen the agency's ability to monitor the performance of a product throughout its entire life cycle, thus enhancing the protection and promotion of public health.

 
FDA's current post-market surveillance programs generate very important new risk information, but the adverse event reporting system depends on health care professionals and patients first recognizing a potential association between an adverse effect and a medical product, and then report it to FDA or the manufacturer. Some adverse events are never reported.


Once the Sentinel System is up and running, FDA will have the tools to query specific adverse event data in large databases, like the Medicare database and in claims data and electronic health information maintained by private and federal entities who volunteer to participate in the Sentinel System. That is, the System will be created through public-private partnerships. It will rely on existing large electronic claims and medical records data sources maintained by private and government entities that agree to participate in this nationwide effort.

Creating an advanced surveillance system like Sentinel was one of the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in its 2006 report on ways to improve the safe use of drugs. The Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 includes provisions that call for the development of such a system. FDA believes patients will benefit because the agency will be able to identify potential problems sooner, better understand those problems, and ultimately, help health professionals and patients use medical products more safely.

 
The overall initiative is described in an FDA white paper titled, “The Sentinel Initiative—A National Strategy for Monitoring Medical Product Safety.” The report is available at here.

Such a system could also ultimately facilitate data mining and other research-related activities. Researchers have said its full effects would take years to realize, however.


It is interesting to speculate about the potential impact of the system, especially on products liability litigation. Medicare collects data typically only when a medical provider is seeking payment. This claims data is less complete, and potentially less accurate than actual patient health records. Thus, utilizing Medicare data to assess health outcomes of drug use may be problematic. Of course, the new system doesn’t change the reality that sometimes patients suffer adverse events after receiving drugs because they are sick, not because the drug has a problem. And Medicare recipients use an average of 28 prescriptions in a year, compared with an average among all Americans of something like 12 prescriptions. Sorting out which medicine caused any single problem – if any did -- can be difficult.


In mass tort litigation, as readers of MassTortDefense know, plaintiffs frequently will attack defendants’ AER system, the resources devoted, the quality of the reporting. Even more frequently, plaintiffs will allege that the AE reports revealed a “signal” far sooner and far more clearly than the company thought; that the defendant missed or ignored the signal about potential adverse events in order to avoid the financial impact of a new label with a stronger warning. But if the FDA will eventually be able to query databases of tens of millions of patients almost simultaneously, presumably it will no longer have to wait for reports from the field, and the allegations of “missed signals” may lose all force.


To assess the accuracy of the Sentinel system, the FDA will initially conduct studies of drug side-effects that are already well known. And despite the issues, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America supported the FDA initiative, see here,  because it will allow regulators and health care professionals to move from reliance on voluntary reporting of side effects to a more proactive monitoring of medicines.