A recent federal court decision explores a seemingly small but potentially crucial issue involving a product liability plaintiff’s treating physicians. In Re: Ortho Evra Products Liability Litigation, No. 1:06-40000, MDL Docket No. 1742 (N.D. Ohio).
Many product liability suits turn on a battle of the experts on issues of injury and causation. In many cases, a key set of witnesses, therefore, are the plaintiffs’ treating physicians. When the views of the treater are on the side of one party, that party will typically emphasize the “neutral” status of the witness and the fact that the treater has had more and closer contacts with the plaintiff. Whichever side disagrees with the treater will try to emphasize that the doctor is not the “world class” expert on the relevant scientific issues, and that his or her real function was to treat the injury/illness, not figure out whether a particular product caused it. Accordingly, the deposition of treating physicians — and the preparation for those depositions — can be a critical stage of products liability litigation.
In this MDL, defendants moved to regulate ex parte contacts with plaintiffs’ treating physicians. Defendants sought to prevent what many see as an unfair advantage by plaintiffs lobbying their theories of liability and causation upon the treating physicians during such ex parte contact — often on the eve of deposition.
Defendants asserted that this issue had been taken up by the New Jersey court in the Zometa/Aredia Litigation litigation. In that New Jersey litigation, Gaus v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., No. MID-L-007014-07-MT (New Jersey, Oct. 29, 2009), the court emphasized the “unique set of practical concerns presented in mass tort cases” as well as the number of plaintiffs in determining that the court’s resources would be impaired by a flood of discovery disputes regarding each treating physician. To ensure the same right of access and promote an efficient discovery process, the court there ordered all parties to proceed by way of formal deposition of plaintiffs’ treating physicians. See also In re NuvaRing Products Liability Litigation, 2009 WL 775442 (E.D. Mo., 2009).
Here, the MDL court allowed plaintiffs’ counsel to have ex parte contact with treating physicians with an important limitation. Specifically, plaintiffs’ counsel can meet ex parte to discuss the physicians’
records, course of treatment and related matters, but not as to liability issues or theories, product warnings, defendant’s research documents, or related materials. Violations of this approach, the court said, will result in sanctions.