The 8th Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of nuisance claims against the makers of over-the-counter cold and cough medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Ashley County v. Pfizer, No. 08-1491, slip op. (8th Cir. Jan. 5, 2009) (here’s a link to the opinion at the Eighth Circuit website).  Important to readers of MassTortDefense, this may be the first appellate court to address whether the lawful distribution of an FDA-approved product can be actionable under a nuisance theory.

Several Arkansas Counties sought to hold the drug companies liable because the lawful cold medicines were being converted by criminals into methamphetamine, an addictive illegal drug. The Counties pleaded theories of unjust enrichment, statutory unfair trade practices, nuisance, and the Arkansas crime victims civil liability statute.

The Counties claimed that the defendants were unjustly enriched at the Counties’ expense when methamphetamine cooks purchased the defendants’ products for use in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine. Unjust enrichment is an equitable doctrine that allows a party to recover for benefits conferred on another. It is restitutionary in nature and focuses on the benefit received. It is not enough, however, to establish a benefit received by another party. There must also be some operative act, intent, or situation to make the enrichment unjust and compensable. A party who is free from fault cannot be held to be unjustly enriched merely because it has chosen to exercise a legal or contractual right.

Here, the Counties did not provide the services for which they sought compensation, i.e., law enforcement, inmate housing, social services, and treatment, with the expectation that the defendants–manufacturers and wholesalers of products containing pseudoephedrine–would pay for those services. In other words, the cold medicine manufacturers cannot be said to be the beneficiaries of the services provided by the Counties. The circumstances connecting the sales of cold medication to the provision of these government services were simply too attenuated to give rise to an implied contract between the manufacturers and the county providers to state a cause of action for unjust enrichment.

The remaining nuisance and statutory claims all failed for lack of proximate cause. Arkansas law incorporates the doctrine of intervening acts, which reflects the limits that society places on a defendant’s liability for his actions. An original act is eliminated as a proximate cause by an intervening cause if the latter is of itself sufficient to stand as the cause of the injury, and the intervening act is independent of the original act. On this, the Eighth Circuit relied on a Third Circuit gun case, City of Philadelphia v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 277 F.3d 415 (3d Cir. 2002), to hold that intervening criminal misconduct can break the chain of proximate cause to product manufacturers. The allegations in the Third Circuit case were nearly identical to the allegations here–that the defendant manufacturers failed to take steps to restrict access to the products containing pseudoephedrine when they knew (an alleged fact the court had to take as true at the judgment on the pleadings stage) that the pseudoephedrine-containing products were being purchased and used illegally to make methamphetamine. “The criminal actions of the methamphetamine cooks and those further down the illegal line of manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine are ‘sufficient to stand as the cause of the injury’ to the Counties in the form of increased government services, and they are ‘totally independent’ of the Defendants’ actions of selling cold medicine to retail stores . . . . ” Slip opin. at 15.