Defense Verdict Upheld on Post-trial Motion in Levaquin MDL

About 1700 federal cases sit in the MDL for the product Levaquin makers.  Levaquin is an antibiotic used to treat a variety of bacterial infections, including upper respiratory infections. Plaintiffs in the MDL allege they have been prescribed Levaquin, and allege that it causes tendons to rupture. They claim that defendants' warnings about this alleged side effect were inadequate.  Defendants deny these allegations.

In this mass tort, the MDL court has begun to try bellwether cases. Recently the MDL court rejected a plaintiff's post-trial motion after he lost the third such trial. See Straka v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 08-5742 (D. Minn., 9/28/12).  A jury found that the alleged failure to warn Straka's prescribing physician about the risk of tendon rupture did not cause the plaintiff's injuries. After trial, one issue was the ubiquitous and almost never prevailing "verdict against the weight of the evidence" argument.  The court disposed of this by noting the sufficient evidence at trial supporting the jury's finding in that Straka's injuries were caused by something other than Levaquin, and that a different warning would not have changed his physician's decision to prescribe Levaquin. Defendants presented evidence about Straka’s steroid use and testimony that steroid use can contribute to tendon injury without the use of Levaquin.  And defendants did a good job presenting evidence that the prescriber could not remember reading the Levaquin label and did not learn of the tendon-associated risks of Levaquin until well after the black box warning was added and a Dear Doctor letter was distributed.

Perhaps more interesting for the trial lawyers among our readers is the argument for a new trial because one juror worked for a company that had a business connection to one of the defendants. Specifically the juror disclosed after trial began that her employer provided services to one of the defendants' (J&J) disability insurance carrier. Straka contended the doctrine of “implied bias” required the court to strike this juror. But the juror could not recall having ever worked on a Johnson & Johnson issue, and she indicated that she was unaware what proportion of her work came indirectly from Johnson & Johnson. When asked if her company’s connection with Johnson & Johnson would affect her ability to be fair and impartial, she said no. 

The doctrine of implied bias (also referred to in some cases as “implicit bias”) requires a court to strike a juror in extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances. See Sanders v. Norris, 529 F.3d 787, 792 (8th Cir. 2008).  The juror here did not have the type of financial relationship that would require the Court to presume implied bias: she was not employed by defendants, or even employed by a company that worked directly for Johnson & Johnson.  Nor was it unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in deliberations in this situation. She was sufficiently removed from Johnson & Johnson that she did not realize that her company did any work relating to the defendants until a co-worker recognized it. So no error in proceeding.

[FYI, according to the court, some MDL parties discussed have discussed a tentative settlement agreement reached on September 25, 2012, in a conference held in front of Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. This tentative settlement agreement is being drafted, and involves the case inventories of 6 law firms. The effect of this settlement would reduce the MDL case count by 845 cases and plaintiffs. At the time of the status conference several other plaintiffs' firms have expressed an interest in exploring settlement, but there remain firms that are interested in going forward with the litigation, according to the court.]


 

MDL Court Rejects Consolidation of Bellwether Trials

Readers of MassTortDefense know how significant the earliest few trials in any mass tort can be, influencing later trials and shaping settlement strategies.  Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort, and how they are tried, can be extremely significant.  The federal court overseeing the MDL concerning the antibiotic Levaquin recently denied plaintiffs' motion to consolidate three bellwether cases for the first trial. In re Levaquin Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 08-1943, (D. Minn.). 

In the Order, the court noted that it had initially selected fifteen cases for evaluation and initial case-specific fact discovery in the bellwether-selection process. Directed by the court to meet and confer on an ordering of these cases for the first trials, the parties narrowed the field to seven remaining bellwether cases for selection for trial. Plaintiffs then moved to consolidate three of the cases for the first trial.  They asserted that the cases share similar characteristics that are central to this litigation and that consolidation would promote judicial efficiency and the interests of justice, while testing the merits of plaintiffs’ arguments. Defendants opposed the motion, arguing that plaintiffs had not met their burden of showing that a consolidated trial’s benefits would outweigh individual
issues in the case. Specifically, defendants argued that individual issues – including each
plaintiff’s unique medical history, each prescribing physician’s knowledge of warnings in the Levaquin package insert, and each plaintiff’s alleged injuries – precluded consolidation.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(a)(2) affords a court broad discretion to consolidate for trial actions involving common questions of law or fact. The party seeking consolidation bears the burden of showing that consolidation would promote judicial convenience and economy. Consolidation is inappropriate, however, if it leads to inefficiency, inconvenience, or unfair prejudice to a party.

Plaintiffs also argued that judicial economy would be served by consolidation because common sources of evidence established the supposedly common facts. For example, the same generic
expert witnesses would testify on behalf of each individual plaintiff, and the regulatory and
corporate history of the drug is the same for each plaintiff. Because of these alleged commonalities and claimed efficiencies, plaintiffs argued that consolidation of the three cases would save the court twenty trial days, not insignificant.
 
In opposition, defendants argued that individual issues, including what dose of Levaquin each physician prescribed to treat each plaintiff’s infection, and each individual plaintiff’s medical history, including their various risk factors for the injury alleged such as age, concomitant medication use including corticosteroids, prior injury, and other factors, all made consolidation inappropriate.

Moreover, defendants argued that consolidation would be prejudicial to them because there are complicated causation issues in each case, and multiple plaintiffs would testify regarding similar injuries, which could cause jury confusion. See In re Consol. Parlodel Litig., 182 F.R.D. 441, 447 (D.N.J. 1999) (“A consolidated trial . . . would compress critical evidence of specific causation and
marketing to a level which would deprive [the defendant] of a fair opportunity to defend itself.”).

At this stage of the MDL, the court concluded, consolidation was not merited. With respect to
the consolidation of cases, the Manual for Complex Litigation notes, “If there are few prior verdicts, judgments, or settlements, additional information may be needed to determine whether aggregation is appropriate. The need for such information may lead a judge to require a number of single-plaintiff, single-defendant trials, or other small trials.” Manual for Complex Litigation § 22.314, at 359 (4th ed. 2004). In the mass tort involving breast implants, the courts noted that that “[u]ntil enough trials have occurred so that the contours of various types of claims within the . . .
litigation are known, courts should proceed with extreme caution in consolidating claims.” In re Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 975 S.W.2d 601, 603 (Tex. 1998).

To date, there are over 240 federal court cases in this MDL and just under 100 state court cases addressing claims similar to those brought by the bellwether plaintiffs. Indeed, this is a still growing MDL, found the court, the exact factual and legal contours of which are still undefined. The parties continue to conduct critical discovery, including deposing plaintiffs’ prescribing physicians. The merits of the parties’ arguments have not been tested at trial or in dispositive motions.

The court recognized that "the stakes are high" because the initial bellwether trials in this MDL may serve as the basis for the parties’ resolution of remaining, pending cases. Thus, although plaintiffs
appear to have demonstrated some commonalities in fact and law among the three
individual plaintiffs’ cases, this motion was denied at this time.