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Massachusetts Stakes Out a Middle Ground and Allows Brand Drug Liability for Generic Drug Labeling Claims Upon a Showing of Recklessness and Serious Harm

Posted in False-Labeling Claims, Litigation Trends, Massachusetts Courts, Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices, Products Liability

The overwhelming majority of courts (including all seven federal circuits that considered the issue) have rejected the so-called “innovator liability” doctrine.[1]  In 2017, however, the California Supreme Court in T.H. v. Novartis Pharm. Corp.[2] unanimously recognized the doctrine holding that brand-name prescription drug manufacturers owe a duty to warn to consumers who use generic drugs.[3]  In March of 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered the issue, and took a middle ground.  Specifically, in Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc.,[4] the SJC held that plaintiffs who ingest the generic form of a drug may bring failure to warn claims against the brand-name manufacturer of the drug if the brand-name defendant acted recklessly by “intentionally fail[ing] to update the label on its drug while knowing or having reason to know of an unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injury associated with its use.”[5]  In so doing, the SJC reasoned that a plaintiff is, in fact, injured by a brand-name product’s label despite never having used said product because statutes require identical labeling of the generically manufactured version.[6]

 

The Facts

 

In 2010, a physician prescribed Finasteride, the generic version of the brand name drug Proscar, to treat Rafferty’s enlarged prostate.[7]  Rafferty experienced anticipated temporary side effects from the drug, causing him to stop taking the medication.[8]  Rafferty, however, continued to experience these side effects and his physician informed him that they could actually continue “indefinitely.”[9]  The potential lifelong side effects of this drug were not disclosed within the brand-name manufacturer’s nor the mirrored generic manufacturer’s warning label.[10]  Rafferty presented evidence that the brand-name manufacturer became aware of these potential long-term side effects by 2008, when it updated Proscar’s warning label in select European markets to include this risk.[11]

 

Rafferty filed suit against the brand-name manufacturer in 2013, asserting a claim of negligence for, inter alia, failure to warn and for violation of the Commonwealth’s Consumer Protection Statute, G.L. c. 93A.[12]  The Superior Court dismissed Rafferty’s claims, “ruling that [the brand-name defendant] owed no duty of care to [him].”[13]  The SJC took over the case by its own motion from the Appeals Court.[14]

 

The SJC Weighs In

 

Traditionally, Massachusetts has not recognized liability for products manufactured by others.[15]  However, the SJC noted that The Restatement (Third) of Torts allows a modification to this general rule in exceptional cases.[16] The SJC considered innovator liability to require such a modification given the certainty that a user of a generic drug will rely on the label fashioned by the brand-name manufacturer and as state law shields failure to warn claims from generic manufacturers, leaving plaintiffs without recourse for their injuries.[17] However, the SJC also recognized that imposing innovator liability could impact the public policy of encouraging innovation in the drug market and a potential increase in drug pricing.[18]

 

Balancing these competing interests, the court held that, “a brand-name manufacturer that controls the contents of the label on a generic drug owes a duty to consumers of that generic drug not to act in reckless disregard of an unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injury.”[19]  As an added protection to the manufacturers, it will be the trial judge’s responsibility to determine whether an injury constitutes an “unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injuries.”[20]  The court went on to define recklessness as an act performed while knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable person to realize that his or her conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.[21] In order to meet this threshold with regard to failure to act, there must be “an intentional or unreasonable disregard of a risk that presents a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result.”[22]

 

The court then vacated the dismissals and remanded the case to Superior Court where the plaintiff would be granted leave to amend his complaint should he believe his claims meet the newfound threshold.[23]

 

National Scope

 

In August of 2017, the United States District Court – District of Massachusetts held in In re Zofran[24] that a brand-name manufacturer is not liable for a generic version’s failure to warn claim spawning from an injury caused by the use of the generic.[25]  Judge Dennis F. Saylor IV articulated this point by emphasizing the consistency of the Circuit Courts’ decisions and citing to a Sixth Circuit multi-district litigation holding “affirming the dismissal of claims against brand-name manufacturers under the laws of 22 states.”[26]  Notwithstanding this majority view, in December of 2017, the Supreme Court of California held that a brand-manufacturer is liable for a failure to warn claim arising from “risks about which it knew of reasonably should have known, regardless of whether the consumer is prescribed the brand-name drug or its generic ‘bioequivalent.’”[27]  Here, the SJC has offered a compromise to the majority and minority viewpoints by adopting a recklessness standard, which is a higher threshold than the minority view, while still maintaining failure to warn liability against the brand-name manufacturer, in contrast with the majority.

 

The court’s concern that redress be available to those who ingest generic drugs by establishing liability to the controlling brand-name manufacturer carried the day.  Our hope is that innovators will continue to advance modern pharmaceutical products despite their increased potential for liability. We will be watching this space for further developments.

 

 

[1] In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Products Liability Litigation, 261 F.Supp.3d 62 (D. Mass. 2017) (citing In re Darvocet, Darvon, and Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d 917, 938-939 (6th Cir. 2014)).

[2] 407 P.3d 18, 29 (Cal. 2017).

[3] Id. at 47.

[4] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc. & Sidney Rubenstein, No. SJC–12347 (Mass. Mar. 16, 2018).

[5] Id. at 2-3.

[6]Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 3-4. The statutory and regulatory constructs pertaining to drug labeling are quite complicated.  Relevant to the matter considered by the SJC, the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, informally known as the “Hatch-Waxman Act” requires the “manufacturer of a generic drug [to] provide its users with a warning label that is identical to the label of the brand-name counterpart.”  Id. at 4.  In accordance with the “federal duty of ‘sameness’” the two opportunities to alter a generic manufacturers preexisting warning are to: (1) update their label in response to their brand-name counterpart’s update; and (2) per specific FDA instruction. Id. at 6-7 (citing PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604, 613-616 (2011)).  These federal laws makes it almost impossible for generic manufacturers to follow Massachusetts labeling laws because they do not have the unilateral power to act. See id.

[7] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 8.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 8-9.

[11] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 9.

[12] Id. Plaintiff also asserted a G.L. c.93A § 9 Consumer Protection Act claim and a negligent failure to obtain informed consent action against his physician.

[13] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 10; Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc. & Sidney Rubenstein, No. 2013–04459, 4 (Mass. Super. May 23, 2013) (emphasizing that because “Rafferty did not ingest the drug that Merck manufactured, Merck owes Rafferty no duty of care”).

[14] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 11.

[15] See e.g. Mathers v. Midland-Ross Corp., 403 Mass. 688, 691 (Mass. 1989); Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., 396 Mass. 629, 631 (Mass. 1986).

[16] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 16.

[17] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 17. This was especially so given generic products command approximately ninety percent of the market. Id.

[18] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 20-22.

[19] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 29.

[20] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 30.

[21] See Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 29 (citing Boyd v. National R.R. Passenger Corp, 446 Mass. 540, 546 (Mass. 2006); Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 500, 587 (1965)).

[22] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 30.

[23] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 36. Additionally, Rafferty’s G.L. c. 93A § 9 claim was vacated because it did not satisfy the “any trade or commerce” provision, which requires that the unfair or deceptive practice is directly related to the advertising, selling, or trade of a Merck product.  Id. at 38.  Thus, because Rafferty used Finasteride, as opposed to Proscar, the claim is beyond the scope of G.L. c. 93A § 9.  Id. at 38-39

[24] 261 F.Supp.3d 62 (D. Mass. 2017). A multi-district litigation matter regarding side effects not purported within the label of Zofran and in-turn not purported on the label of the generic version, Ondansetron.

[25] In re Zofran, 261 F.Supp.3d at 64-65.

[26] In re Zofran, 261 F.Supp.3d at 71-72 (citing In re Darvocet, Darvon, and Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d at 938-939.

[27] T.H. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 407 P.3d at 29 (citing Dolin v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 62 F.Supp.3d 705 (N.D. Ill. 2014); Chatman v. Pfizer, Inc., 960 F.Supp.2d 641, 654 (S.D. Miss. 2013); Kellogg v. Wyeth, Inc., 762 F.Supp.2d 694, 704 (D. Vt. 2010); Wyeth, Inc. v. Weeks, 159 So.3d 649 (Ala. 2014)). See also Conte v. Wyeth, Inc., 168 Cal.App.4th 89 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008).