United States: Philadelphia Court Tosses Off-Label Promotion Claims

Last Updated: April 4 2017
Article by Michelle Yeary

Today we give you something rare from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas — a defense win on preemption. The Philadelphia CCP has been the source of some rather vexing decisions over the years and has certainly taken its share of criticism. Criticism that we think has been rather overstated. Don't get us wrong, we've vehemently voiced our disapproval of several Philadelphia CCP decisions over the years. But there are plenty of times when Philadelphia judges get it right. That happened two weeks ago in Caltagirone v. Cephalon, Inc., 2017 WL 1135576 (Pa. CCP Mar. 23, 2017).

Plaintiff was prescribed an opioid medication to treat his migraines. The drug was approved for use to treat pain related to cancer, so the prescription was off-label. We use that term a lot, but it is worth stopping to remind ourselves what that really means. The FDA-approved labeling for the drug says its intended use is for treating pain in cancer patients. In other words, that was the patient population in which the drug was studied and the data presented to and examined by the FDA and therefore, the indication for which it was approved. Once a drug or device is on the market, however, doctors, who are not governed by the FDA, are free to use those products for any reason they find is medically necessary. Indeed, much of what we know today about drugs and devices comes from physicians using them in the field in ways that they were not originally intended (aspirin as a blood thinner being among the most well-known example). When you break it down like that, it is not surprising that doctors treating patients with migraines who have not been receptive to standard treatments would look to alternative pain medications, such as an opioid with proven success in alleviating pain in cancer patients. In this context, the drug is still being used to treat pain, just a different type of pain.

Back to Caltagirone. The opioid prescribed to plaintiff, in addition to being labeled for use with cancer patients, was also known to be highly addictive. Id. at *1 & 5. The drug was prescribed to plaintiff for 7 years during which time he was in and out of drug treatment programs due to opioid and other drug addictions. Plaintiff ultimately died from his drug addiction. Id. at *1.

Plaintiff's claims were for negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, and violation of the UTPCPL. The basis for each claim was an allegation that defendants illegally promoted the drug for off-label uses, which was forbidden by the FDA. Id. at *2. The first thing the court does is negate plaintiff's premise by holding that "generally off-label sales, promotions and prescriptions are proper." Id. at *3. Further, at the motion to dismiss stage, the court had to accept as true the material facts pleaded by plaintiff. But a critical material fact was missing from plaintiff's complaint – any allegation that any off-label promotion was false. A false or misleading statement or omission is a requirement for each of plaintiff's claims under state law. However, plaintiff only alleges that defendants marketed the drug off-label, not that that off-label promotion was false in any way. Because there is no state-law duty to avoid off-label promotion, plaintiff's claims "could not exist in the absence of federal laws and regulations." Id. In other words, plaintiff is suing "because the conduct of promoting the drug for migraine headaches violates the FDCA," not because defendant has breached any state-law duty. Therefore, plaintiff's action is a private attempt to enforce the FDCA; the type of action that is barred by Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs' Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).

While the court dismissed the case with prejudice as preempted, because defendants also asserted that it was barred by the learned intermediary doctrine, the court addressed that issue as well.

Plaintiff argued that the doctrine should not apply because plaintiff's doctor was not learned because he was given "misinformation" by defendants. Id. at *4. The court saw that for the disingenuous argument that it was. Not only did the prescribing doctor have access to the risk and precaution information provided by defendants and his own medical training and judgment – in this case, the doctor had "actual knowledge" that his patient had become addicted and continued to prescribe the drug for many years. Id. at *5. The physician is the customer under the learned intermediary rule. Id. And it is the physician's "duty to read and consider the materials from [other medical sources] and writings from the Defendant manufacturers." Id. The fact that the prescriber may also have read or seen off-label promotion, didn't change the fact that it was his duty to use all his training and experience, combined with his personal knowledge of the patient, which here included knowledge of addiction (the harm complained of), to treat the plaintiff. The court usefully also noted that the treater has a duty to know what other medications the patient is taking. Id. Keep in mind this strong statement of the learned intermediary's duty the next time you are arguing this issue in Philadelphia.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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