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.