United States: Briefing Completed In Half-Billion-Dollar Verdict In Pinnacle MDL

Last Updated: May 12 2017
Article by John Sullivan

This post comes from the Cozen O'Connor side of the blog.

Plaintiffs and defendants have now completed briefing before the Fifth Circuit on defendants' appeal of the $498 million verdict in the second bellwether trial of the Pinnacle hip implant MDL. Obviously, there is a lot riding on this appeal. In March, we laid out for you the manner in which defendants' opening brief addressed certain key issues. Below, we discuss the defendants' responses, in their reply brief, to the arguments that plaintiffs make on those key issues in their opening brief:

Design Defect Verdict: While defendants have offered a number of reasons to overturn the verdict on design defect, the survival of that portion of the verdict could very well turn on whether plaintiffs can convince the Fifth Circuit that an allegedly safer alternative design for DePuy's metal-on-metal hip implant, a necessary element of a design defect claim, can be an entirely different product—a metal-on-polyethylene hip implant—one that is already marketed by DePuy. In our experience, an entirely different product cannot serve as an alternative design. Here is a portion of defendants' discussion of this failing in their reply brief:

To prevail on their design-defect claims, plaintiffs were required to prove that a safer alternative design existed for the Pinnacle Ultamet. Caterpillar, Inc. v. Shears, 911 S.W.2d 379, 384 (Tex. 1995). Yet plaintiffs do not argue that the Ultamet should have been shaped differently, secured differently, made of a different metal alloy, or altered in some other way. Instead, plaintiffs argue that the safer alternative design is the Pinnacle AltrX, an existing metal-on-polyethylene hip implant. The question here is whether that metal-on-polyethylene hip implant—which already exists and, indeed, is manufactured and sold by DePuy—is an "alternative design" for the Pinnacle Ultamet, or is instead an "entirely different product." Brockert v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 287 S.W.3d 760, 770 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2009).

Brockert provides the answer. In Brockert, the plaintiff argued that an "alternative design" for a drug combining estrogen with progestin was a drug containing only estrogen. Id. at 769. There, like here, that proposed alternative already existed and, again like here, was manufactured by the defendant. Id. The Fourteenth Court of Appeals held that plaintiff's claim failed because she did not show how the defendant's drug "could have been modified or improved"; she instead argued that the drug should be an entirely different product—i.e., the one defendants already made. Id. at 770-71. . . .

Plaintiffs attempt to distinguish Brockert and Caterpillar by noting that the proposed alternatives in those cases "impaired the product's utility." But that is no distinction at all: plaintiffs' proposed alternative design here would impair the Ultamet's utility by eliminating precisely the feature that makes it distinctive and an arguable improvement over pre-existing products. Plaintiffs do not deny that metal is more durable than plastic, making metal-on-metal implants a more "attractive option for the younger, high-demand patient who was wearing out their plastic previously." Nor do they dispute that metal-on-metal implants eliminate plastic debris. Texas law requires plaintiffs to propose an alternative design that replicates those benefits, not just any two benefits they can conjure up. In short, plaintiffs were required to propose a safer alternative design for a metal-on-metal hip implant, but they instead pointed to a different product altogether, which is precisely what Texas courts have held that plaintiffs may not do.

(Defendants' Reply Br. at 3-6.)

Failure to Warn (Marketing Defect) Verdict: In their opening brief, defendants argued that their Instructions for Use sufficiently warned about the risks that form the basis of plaintiffs' claims, while plaintiffs' opening brief argues that those warnings needed to be more specific. While we believe that defendants have the better of that argument, they appear to have even stronger arguments as to plaintiffs' failures to offer expert testimony on causation or prescriber testimony on how a different warning would have changed their decisions to use the Pinnacle metal-on-metal hip implant. Here are key excerpts from defendants' reply brief on these issues:

[Lack of Expert Opinion]

Regardless, plaintiffs can prevail under Texas law only if they established with expert testimony that the warnings were inadequate, and they did not do so here. Plaintiffs do not dispute this requirement, instead contending that Dr. Matthew Morrey's testimony satisfied their burden. But Dr. Morrey was never tendered or admitted as a warnings expert at trial. Plaintiffs attempt to dance around that problem by stating that they designated Dr. Morrey as a warnings expert before trial, but the district court never evaluated his qualifications to be a warnings expert or admitted him as a warnings expert, and his testimony therefore cannot carry plaintiffs' burden.

[Lack of Prescriber Testimony]

Greer: Greer's surgeon, Dr. Goletz, did not testify at trial. . . .

Peterson: Peterson's surgeon, Dr. Schoch, also did not testify at trial. . . .

Christopher: Plaintiffs do not dispute that Christopher's surgeon, Dr. Kearns, "never read an [IFU] on the Pinnacle Ultamet" and did not know what the IFU said "regarding risks for the implantation of these devices." . . .

Klusmann: Plaintiffs assert that Klusmann's surgeon, Dr. Heinrich, testified that additional information "would have changed how he treated Klusmann." But Heinrich did not say he would have used a different hip implant; he said only that he would have evaluated Klusmann's post-implant symptoms differently. Dr. Heinrich never testified that he would have used anything other than the Ultamet, and in fact testified that he was aware of the risk of metal ions attacking tissue, but used the Ultamet anyway.

Aoki: The only testimony plaintiffs cite about Aoki is her statement that Dr. Heinrich told her the Ultamet could last "up to 20 years and perhaps life." But that testimony does not prove that Dr. Heinrich would have used a different implant if DePuy provided different warnings, especially in light of his testimony that he was aware of the Ultamet's risks. . . . .

(Defendants' Reply Br. at 10-14.)

Verdict against J&J: Defendants' reply brief surgically attacks plaintiffs' arguments on why the trial court could maintain personal jurisdiction over DePuy's parent company, J&J, as well as plaintiffs' theories for ultimately holding J&J liable. Plaintiffs' personal jurisdiction arguments appear to be different from those raised at trial (and therefore waived) and to rely on exhibits that, in some cases, were not even admitted at trial and acts that were not committed by J&J itself, but instead by its subsidiaries. Plaintiffs' opening brief also struggles to support the viability of their substantive claims against J&J, including how plaintiffs can turn an affirmative defense for a non-manufacturing seller into a cause of action. Here is how defendants sum up these problems in the introduction to their reply brief:

Plaintiffs' efforts to justify J&J's presence in this case are no more persuasive. They abandon their previous personal-jurisdiction arguments for new ones, asking this Court to adopt a stream-of-commerce theory so expansive it would bring every parent company into any litigation involving a subsidiary. They try to buttress that argument with lengthy footnotes full of string-cites to evidence either not in the trial record or not what they claim, but super-sized footnotes are no substitute for minimum contacts, which are plainly lacking. And even if they could establish jurisdiction, plaintiffs have no viable claims against J&J. They do not point to a single Texas case holding a defendant liable in tort for a "nonmanufacturing seller" claim or an aiding-and-abetting claim, and they fail to show that J&J undertook a duty for their protection or that they relied on its performance.

(Defendants' Reply Br. at 1.)

Highly Inflammatory, Irrelevant and Unduly Prejudicial Evidence: This is the BIG issue, the one that raised so many eyebrows as the trial moved on. In their opening brief, plaintiffs try to calm those reactions by underplaying their use of this evidence at trial and its importance to the verdict. But the defendants reply brief reacts effectively to this tactic, providing detail on plaintiffs' repeated, not limited, used of this evidence, so much so that it formed a central component of their presentation to the jury. Here is how defendants address this issue in, once again, the introduction to their reply brief:

Plaintiffs' defense of the inflammatory evidence they introduced at trial is to assert that each transgression was not that inflammatory. After all, they referenced Saddam Hussein in only "a handful of exchanges," linked defendants to tobacco and asbestos companies while questioning only "one defense expert," invoked the threat of cancer for only "three-and-a-half pages of testimony," implied just "twice" that the Ultamet could lead to suicide, told the jury that plaintiffs considered jumping off a bridge for a mere "five lines of argument," mentioned the thousands of other lawsuits in the MDL only "on five occasions," and discussed transvaginal mesh lawsuits brought by "45,000 women" for only "12 lines of testimony." The suggestion that the combined effect of all this profoundly prejudicial evidence was marginal does not pass the straight-face test; indeed, the best indication of the importance of this evidence is that fact that plaintiffs' counsel repeated all of it in his closing statement to the jury. Inflaming the jury's passions through irrelevant evidence was not just a happenstance but a core component of plaintiffs' trial strategy, and the gargantuan verdict shows the success of that strategy.

(Defendants' Reply Br. at 2.)

Next comes oral argument and then the Fifth Circuit's decision. And that decision will, quite obviously, have a major impact on the future of an MDL that without appellate intervention appears destined to produce more and more massive verdicts.

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

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