If asbestos is the grandfather of mass torts, the DES litigation may be the grandmother, with claims continuing today for harm allegedly caused by in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol decades ago. DES is a drug once prescribed during pregnancy to prevent miscarriages or premature deliveries. In the U.S. an estimated 5 to 10 million persons were exposed to DES from 1938 to 1971, including pregnant women prescribed DES and their children. So we are 40 years out now, with some litigation remaining.
Recently, a federal court in New York held that a DES plaintiff could not meet the product identification requirement under applicable Texas law. See Bezuidenhout v. Abbott Laboratories, No. 10-CV-1011(E.D.N.Y., 1/17/13).
Readers may recall that what is often termed “product identification” is part of the cause in fact requirement of every tort claim. A plaintiff must show that he or she has been injured not just by a type of product but by a product actually made or sold by the defendant. In the context of DES, product identification may be especially challenging because the plaintiff’s exposure may be in utero and the manifestation of the injury may not come for many years after the exposure. A tiny minority of jurisdictions have flirted with weakening the traditional cause in fact requirement by adopting some form of the “market share” doctrine, under which defendants may be held proportionately liable to a plaintiff who cannot show which manufacturer sold the product that caused the injury, based on that defendant’s sales of the product in the “relevant market.” Flawed and unfair, the concept did not gain wide acceptance.
Bezuidenhout was born in 1957 in Texas. While pregnant, her mother allegedly took DES, which was prescribed to her in Texas, according to the amended complaint. Decades later, plaintiff alleged various personal injury and increased risk of future injuries. Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiff could not identify which manufacturer made the DES her mother took, as required under Texas law.
Plaintiff argued that Texas law was unsettled, that Texas courts had not clearly rejected the market share theory. The court said it need not wade too deeply into Bezuidenhout’s “pool of hypotheticals”, since it rested upon a false premise—that Texas law, as to proof of causation, is unsettled…”It is not.” Indeed, the court opined that one of the goals of this case was to unsettle it. Texas does not permit recovery under a collective liability or market share theory. The courts in In re Fibreboard Corp., 893 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1990), and Cimino v. Raymark Indust., Inc., 151 F.3d 297, 312 (5th Cir. 1998), held that in Texas, it is a fundamental principle of traditional products liability law that the plaintiff must prove that the defendants supplied the product which caused the injury. Plaintiff tried to bootstrap to an “alternate reality,” said the court. The Texas Supreme Court has never chosen to adopt market share liability.
With the market share approach rejected, plaintiff had not proffered sufficient evidence to identify the defendant as a manufacturer of her mother’s DES. Her mother’s affidavit contradicted her prior sworn deposition testimony about whose product she might have used. And, at best, a log from the pharmacist indicated that defendant’s DES was among the many medications available at the pharmacy, but did not show which DES her mother took. The court thus found plaintiff failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding the identity of the DES manufacturer.