In Ackermann v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, 2008 WL 1821379 (5th Cir, April 24, 2008), the Fifth Circuit addressed a couple of very important issues affecting the learned intermediary doctrine. Readers of MassTortDefense recognize that the LI doctrine is an important exception to the rule that a manufacturer must warn the end user or consumer of its product. In the case of prescription drugs and medical devices, which a patient may receive through the advice and with the permission of a prescribing physician, the duty to warn extends to this learned intermediary, who in turn uses his or her expertise, judgment, and knowledge of the specific patient, to decide not only which product the patient should receive, but which aspects of the long and detailed warning information should be emphasized with the patient.

Background of Decision

In Ackermman, plaintiff’s decedent alleged that defendant Wyeth failed adequately to warn about the drug-induced risk of suicide from its drug Effexor, and this deficiency led to her husband’s suicide. Effexor is a member of the class of drugs referred to as “selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors” (“SNRI”). SNRIs are used to treat major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and social anxiety disorder. The FDA generally groups Effexor with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (“SSRI”) class of antidepressants, which includes Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.

Plaintiff apparently suffered from clinical depression brought on by severe business and family problems. Martin sought treatment from psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Sonn on January 4, 2002. Martin saw Dr. Sonn four times in the following eight days. During that time, Dr. Sonn changed Martin’s medication to Effexor. On January 12, Martin complained to Dr. Sonn of various side effects he attributed to Effexor, including anxiety. Martin announced he would no longer take the medication. Dr. Sonn changed Martin’s medication from Effexor to Celexa because of the apparent side effects. Plaintiff terminated his relationship with Dr. Sonn. Nevertheless, Martin continued to take Celexa for five days until January 17, 2002, when he apparently committed suicide with a revolver. At the time of his death, Martin had detectable levels of Celexa, but not Effexor, in his bloodstream. 2008 WL 1821379 *1.

Dr. Sonn testified at deposition that he believed the package insert for Effexor as it existed in January 2002 adequately warned him of the risks of suicide and that he would continue to prescribe the drug to depressed patients. Wyeth filed for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court on the basis of the learned intermediary doctrine.

The Learned Intermdiary Doctrine

The Fifth Circuit noted that under the doctrine, a patient-purchaser’s doctor stands between the patient and the manufacturer, professionally evaluating the patient’s needs, assessing the risks and benefits of available drugs, prescribing one, and supervising its use. If the doctor is properly warned of the possibility of a side effect and is advised of the symptoms normally accompanying the side effect, it is anticipated that injury to the patient will be avoided. Accordingly, the doctrine excuses a drug manufacturer “from warning each patient who receives the product when the manufacturer properly warns the prescribing physician of the product’s dangers.” Porterfield v. Ethicon, Inc., 183 F.3d 464, 467–68 (5th Cir. 1999). Under Texas law, the learned-intermediary doctrine is not an affirmative defense, but it delineates to whom a defendant owes the duty to warn. 2008 WL 1821379 *2-3.

To recover for failure to warn under this doctrine, a plaintiff typically must show that (1) the warning was defective, and (2) the failure to warn was a producing cause of the injury. In other words, under Texas law, a plaintiff who complains that a prescription drug warning is inadequate must also show that the alleged inadequacy caused her doctor to prescribe the drug for her. If the physician was aware of the possible risks involved in the use of the product but decided to use it anyway, the adequacy of the warning is not a producing cause of the injury and the plaintiff’s recovery must be denied. And even if the physician is not aware of a risk, the plaintiff must show that a proper warning would have changed the decision of the treating physician, i.e., that but for the inadequate warning, the treating physician would have not used or prescribed the product. 2008 WL 1821379 *3.

Application To The Facts

Applying that review to the facts here, the Fifth Circuit noted that the January 2002 package insert warning mentions the risk for suicide twice, cautions that close supervision of high-risk patients should accompany initial drug therapy, and identifies the frequencies of suicidal behavior observed in patients taking Effexor. Even if not as explicit as plaintiff demanded post hoc, taken all together, the insert’s discussions of suicide establish that at least some risk of suicide exists when a patient takes Effexor.

The Court allowed the possibility that some issue of fact could be made out about whether the defendant’s characterization of the infrequent risks, was within a requisite degree of accuracy or was misleading. 2008 WL 1821379 *4.

However, the appeal could be resolved on the second prong of the analysis, namely, whether any defect in the Effexor warning was a substantial cause of Martin’s death. There must be a genuine issue of material fact whether the physician, here Dr. Sonn, would have prescribed Effexor even had the warning been “adequate” in plaintiff’s terms. Here the court had to look at Dr. Sonn’s testimony about the certainty of his decision to prescribe Effexor, and alternatively, at the so-called “read-and-heed” presumption presuming that when an adequate warning is given by the manufacturer, it is heeded by the learned intermediary.

Prescriber Testimony Key

Dr. Sonn testified that he reviewed the plaintiff’s proposed “fuller” warning, concluding that if the [proposed] warning had been communicated to him effectively and in a prominent manner before he prescribed Effexor to plaintiff, he would have considered it “but it would not have changed my decision to prescribe Effexor XR to Martin Ackermann to treat his depression, beginning with low-dose pills. It also would have not changed my decision to monitor and observe Martin Ackermann closely for suicide-related risks as I did… and as I did with Martin Ackermann, I would address the suicide-related risks reflected in that warning by close monitoring and observation, rather than through discussions with the patient expressly mentioning the risk of suicide or drug-triggered suicide.” 2008 WL 1821379 *5.

The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that this was somehow contradictory testimony; his testimony was unequivocal. That he said he would have read it and heeded it did not mean anything other than he would have considered it, would have included it in his decision-making calculus. In his deposition and in his later declaration, Dr. Sonn affirmed that he would have prescribed Effexor to Martin and adhered to the treatment regimen he used regardless whether he had received the proposed stronger warning. In December 2005, he testified that he would not have warned Martin about the possibility of an increased risk of suicide primarily based on his belief that the suggestion would either plant seeds in the patient’s mind that suicide was an option or would discourage the patient from pursuing pharmacological treatment. And that, MassTortDefense readers, is a crucial notion. Any argument from the plaintiff that the prescriber was or would be legally required to pore over all the details of the warnings with a sick patient [and thus scare plaintiff into not taking the drug] is fundamentally inconsistent with the ethical duties of the physician.

Dr. Sonn was also asked to review the warning label accompanying Effexor that was in effect at the time of his deposition in December 2005, which included a “black box” warning for potential increased suicide in children and adolescents. When asked a follow-up question about a proposed similar warning for adults, Dr. Sonn reiterated his prior testimony and confirmed that it would not have changed his decision to prescribe Effexor XR to Martin Ackermann to treat his depression.

Because she construed this as a “no warnings” case, plaintiff’s decedent argued that Wyeth completely sabotaged the intermediary, who, in turn, failed to warn of the risk of suicide. For this reason, she viewed Dr. Sonn’s testimony that he would have given a required warning to mean, “if Wyeth had given me a better warning, I would have warned.” This interpretation, however, is incompatible with Dr. Sonn’s testimony that his treatment protocol would not have changed and he still would have prescribed Effexor regardless of the warning given by the manufacturer.

This part of the decision is consistent with some other useful cases out there, including Motus v. Pfizer Inc., 358 F.3d 659 (9th Cir. 2004)(Zoloft); Porter v. Eli Lilly & Co., 2008 WL 544739 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 25, 2008)(Prozac); Longs ex rel. Estate of Buchanan v. Wyeth, 536 F.Supp.2d 843 (N.D. Ohio 2008)(Redux); Allgood v. Glaxosmithkline Plc, 2008 WL 483574 (E.D. La. Feb.20, 2008)(Paxil); Vanderwerf v. SmithKlineBeecham Corp., 529 F. Supp.2d 1294 (D. Kans. 2008)(Paxil).

In our next post, MassTortDefense will switch focus to the 5th Circuit’s handling of the heeding presumption.