No Second Bite of the Apple for HT Plaintiffs

A federal court granted summary judgment in litigation brought by hormone replacement drug plaintiffs whose suits were previously ruled untimely by a New York court. See Rick v. Wyeth Inc.,  No. 08-1287 (D. Minn., 9/23/10).

Plaintiffs, all citizens of New York, were women, and spouses of women, who allegedly used
hormone therapy drugs manufactured and sold by defendants. Plaintiffs further alleged that they developed breast cancer as a result of the use of HT drugs.  Plaintiffs had previously brought suit individually in New York state court where their claims were consolidated into a single
coordinated proceeding. In the New York proceeding, defendants moved for summary judgment based on the New York statute of limitations. Foreseeing the end of their suits, plaintiffs moved for a discontinuance without prejudice. While the dueling motions in the New York proceeding were pending, plaintiffs commenced another action in federal court in Minnesota (where there is a much longer, highly controversial statute of limitations; none of plaintiffs, nor any of the claims at issue, had any connection to Minnesota. Instead, it seems this case, like hundreds of others involving HT drugs, was brought solely to take advantage of Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations.)

The New York trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and denied the
plaintiffs’ motion for "discontinuance without prejudice." In doing so, the New York trial court reasoned that the defendants would be unfairly prejudiced by allowing the litigation to re-start in another forum after having completed discovery and reached the summary judgment phase in the New York proceeding.

In the federal court proceeding, defendants then moved for summary judgment arguing that the New York judgment was entitled to preclusive effect.  The traditional rule for claim preclusion was that dismissal for untimeliness does not bar a second action in another jurisdiction with a longer, unexpired statute of limitations. Semtek Int’l Inc. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497, 504 (2001). However, the actual test for a federal court determining the preclusive effects of a prior state-court judgment is to ask ask what preclusive effect that state intends other jurisdictions to accord its judgments.  Here, the federal court determined that New York has not definitively answered that question in this context. Therefore, the court had to determine what rule New York would likely apply.

On one hand, the New York Court of Appeals has stated that, in general, New York views statutes of limitations as procedural rather than substantive. However, the New York Court of Appeals has also held that, in the narrow context of claim preclusion, statutes of limitations “in a practical sense may also be said to be substantive.”  Thus, said the federal court, the procedural/substantive distinction that formed the foundation of plaintiffs’ argument here was hardly clear under New York law. Indeed, while the procedural/substantive distinction may be a useful tool in some instances, a clear line between procedure and substance is not always ascertainable.

In interpreting this ambiguous area of New York law, the federal court was also mindful of the overarching principals of claim preclusion. Claim preclusion doctrine values judicial economy, preventing parties from burdening courts with claims already litigated.

Against this backdrop, the federal court found the procedural posture of the case decisive.  In the New York proceeding, the plaintiffs moved for a discontinuance without prejudice. Under New York law, an element of granting such a motion is whether the adverse party will suffer prejudice. The NY trial judge believed that a discontinuance without prejudice would not have preclusive effects in the federal action, and noted that granting the plaintiffs’ motion might thus allow plaintiffs’ Minnesota action to continue. Concluding that defendants would be highly prejudiced if forced to continue litigation in another forum, the trial judge denied the plaintiffs' motion. Implicit in that reasoning was that the grant of summary judgment instead would have preclusive effect in the federal litigation. Indeed, the New York trial court specifically stated that defendants had a right to judgment on the merits.

Thus, at the summary judgment phase, the timeliness issues were “sufficiently close to the
merits” to implicate claim preclusion. Plaintiffs chose to bring their claims in New York and continued litigation up to summary judgment.

 

Causation Proof Still Insufficient In Drug Case

A while back we posted about an interesting toxic tort case involving important causation issues. See Zandi v. Wyeth, 2009 WL 2151141 (Minn.App.).  A Minnesota appeals court recently refused to rehear its prior affirmance of summary judgment for defendants in a suit by a woman who alleged hormone replacement drugs caused her breast cancer.  2009 Minn. LEXIS 648. 

Plaintiff alleged that between approximately 1981 and 2001, she ingested hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs manufactured, designed, packaged, marketed, and distributed by defendants. In November 2001, Zandi alleges she was diagnosed with "hormone-dependent breast cancer." She contended that the HRT drugs caused her cancer. 

The trial court found that plaintiff's specific causation evidence did not satisfy Minnesota's standard for admissibility of expert testimony. Zandi offered testimony from Dr. Lester Layfield and Dr. Gail Bender to try to prove that HRT drugs caused her cancer. Minnesota courts use the Frye standard to determine the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. Zandi's claims were based on the following propositions: 1) it is supposedly generally accepted that HRT causes hormone-dependent breast cancer, and 2) there is a generally accepted method of diagnosing the cause of hormone-dependent breast cancer in an individual. The appellate issues revolved around the second.

Plaintiff's experts based their specific causation opinions in part on "differential diagnosis."  As readers of MassTortDefense know,  differential diagnosis, sometimes called “differential etiology”  is a process through which all the scientifically plausible causes of an injury are “ruled in,” and the expert then “rules out” the less plausible causes until reaching the one that theoretically cannot be ruled out.  If you've watched "House" on TV, you have seen the use of differential diagnosis to discover what disease a patient is suffering from.  Less traditional, and more questionable, is the use of the technique to discover what is the cause of the disease in the patient.  Most doctors don't care as much about the cause of the disease as getting the right disease and treating it.  As used by toxic tort plaintiffs, differential diagnosis adopts a process of elimination to identify not just the injury (which may be debated) but also the cause; in theory, it seeks to eliminate the possibility of competing causes or confounding factors. 

Again, in performing a differential diagnosis, a physician begins by ruling in all scientifically plausible causes of the patient's injury. The physician then rules out the least plausible causes of injury until the most likely cause remains. Yet, breast cancer does not lend itself to such a differential diagnosis because the scientific community has not accepted that breast cancer has a limited number of discrete and recognized possible causes such that ruling out one or a few causes would necessarily implicate another. For differential diagnosis to be sufficiently reliable to even come close to proving causation, even assuming one accepts the method in this context, the diagnostician should rule out all other hypotheses, or at least explain why the other conceivable causes are excludable. But additional risk factors that plaintiff failed to adequately account for here in this case included family history. When faced with this dilemma, as is common when a disease has many idiopathic cases, plaintiff's experts simply suggest that it is possible to conduct a reliable differential diagnosis without ruling out other hypotheses, as long as "major" or "most" explanations are ruled out.  Courts should be wary of this.

Courts generally recognize that the proffered expert must have a sufficient basis to “rule in” the drug or toxic substance at issue as a plausible cause of plaintiff’s injury. E.g., Jazairi v. Royal Oaks Apts., 217 Fed. Appx. 895 (8th Cir. 2007).  But this case is a good reminder that the plaintiff's expert testimony must also reliably “rule out” the other plausible causes of the injury--  again, especially difficult when its causes are largely unknown.  On this record, the court said, “We conclude that there is not a method of diagnosing the specific cause of a particular woman's breast cancer that is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community. This reality leaves Zandi without a legally sufficient ability to prove specific causation.”  See also Perry v. Novartis, 564 F. Supp.2d 452 (E.D. Pa. 2008).

This clear reasoning can be contrasted with the inexplicable finding of the 8th Circuit in Scroggin v. Wyeth, 2009 WL 3518245 (8th Cir. Nov. 2, 2009), which accepted plaintiff's carefully constructed circular reasoning.  Unable to prove that the breast cancer was caused by hormone therapy drugs, plaintiff's expert simply re-diagnosed the disease as hormone-induced breast cancer.  This allowed the expert to engage in a so-called differential diagnosis to determine the cause of the breast cancer simply by ruling out the two possible sources of these hormones: (1) plaintiff produced the hormones herself, or (2) they came from the hormone replacement therapy she had allegedly taken for the past eleven years.  Under this circular reasoning, any form of cancer can easily be linked to the defendant's product because it will be re-characterized as the sub-type of disease caused by the substance at issue.