United States: No Ifs, Ands Or Butts – Preemption Gutts, Rebutts, And Shutts Down Utts

Last Updated: May 17 2017
Article by James Beck

Late last year we happily blogged about Utts v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2016 WL 7429449 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2016), chiefly because it held that design defect claims against a branded prescription drug (Eliquis) were preempted under the impossibility preemption reasoning in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011), and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013). However, as we noted in that post, dismissal of the non-design aspects of complaint was with "leave to amend." See also Utts, 2016 WL 7429449, at *1.

Of course, plaintiffs amended.

Now, they probably wish they hadn't.

In a second opinion, issued earlier this month, the Utts litigation was dismissed a second time, this time with prejudice. Utts v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1906875 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2017) ("Utts II"). Preemption was once again front and center, but this time an excellent preemption result was accompanied by a variety of equally pleasing common-law – California law – rulings.

Impossibility Preemption

First, preemption. Design defect claims had already been preempted under Mensing/Bartlett, as plaintiffs were reminded whenever they crossed the line into design-type claims. Id. at *1, 9, 10 n.10, 13 n.15, 16, 19. But the major preemption issue this time around involved warnings – and whether any of the information that plaintiffs claimed required some kind of "better" warnings involved "newly acquired information" of the sort that a defendant could unilaterally add given the scope of the FDA's "changes being effected" exception to preemption recognized in Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009). See 21 C.F.R. §314.3(b) (known as the "CBE" regulation for drugs – note, there are similar CBE regulations for devices and biologics; we've discussed the device regulation here).

For a more detailed discussion of the "newly acquired information" aspect of preemption, see our post here about In re Celexa & Lexapro Marketing & Sales Practices Litigation, 779 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2015), which was the first appellate decision finding preemption where plaintiffs failed to come forward with any "new" information to support their warning claims. Utts II explained that, in the preemption context, "if the plaintiff can point to the existence of 'newly acquired information' to support a labeling change under the CBE regulation, the burden then shifts to the manufacturer to show by 'clear evidence' that the FDA would not have approved the labeling change made on the basis of this newly acquired information." 2017 WL 1906875, at *9.

Plaintiffs threw a lot of mud at the drug and its manufacturer, but nothing they heaved against the wall stuck – everything plaintiffs cited all old information that did not go beyond what the FDA had before it when it approved the drug in the first place.

Why is that?

Basically, Eliquis is a next-generation anticoagulant, very effective at what it does, and not requiring the kind of dietary restrictions and constant blood testing that older blood thinners such as warfarin – originally sold as rat poison – do. Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *2 & n.4. Unfortunately, the plaintiffs' bar has decided that anybody needing anticoagulation therapy should be should only have such older drugs available, and has launched an ongoing litigation assault at practically every next generation anticoagulant (others include Xarelto and Pradaxa) – because of risks of serious and sometimes fatal bleeding inherent in what these drugs are supposed to do.

The FDA was well aware of the risks that Eliquis, like any other anticoagulant, could cause uncontrollable bleeding when it approved it. Indeed, the "label warns about the risk of serious bleeding no less than five times." Id. at *3. It "specifically warns about the risk of bleeding" during concomitant therapy "in conjunction with antiplatelet agents, such as aspirin." Id. at *4. The labeling also "twice warns about the fact that there is no specific antidote" should serious bleeding occur. Id.

That's why plaintiffs lost in Utts II.

Basically, the well-known fact that anticoagulants carry with them serious bleeding risks is why none of the information that the plaintiffs in Utts II brought forward qualified as "new." "New" is defined in the FDA's CBE regulation as "studies, events, or analyses [that] reveal risks of a different type or greater severity or frequency than previously included in submissions to FDA. 21 C.F.R. §314.3(b) (quoted at 2017 WL 1906875, at *8). In the preemption context, "

  • "The table and the description from the ISMP report do not suggest − nor do the plaintiffs allege − that the real-world signal data for [the drug] shows a greater severity or frequency of bleeding events or deaths than previously disclosed in [defendant's] submissions to the FDA. Accordingly, the information contained in this table does not constitute newly acquired information. Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *13.
  • Plaintiffs argue "that the guidance regarding concomitant use of antiplatelet agents is inadequate because the label does not advise how or when to use combination therapy . . . or how commonly bleeding events will occur. This omission . . . was evident to the FDA when it approved the label and the plaintiffs have not identified any newly acquired information." Id. (quotation marks and footnote omitted).
  • This observation does not constitute newly acquired information, as it simply speculates whether [drug] safety could be further improved. Id. at *14 (as to "improved dosage guidance").
  • [E]mbolic-thrombotic events are . . . not bleeding events. Nor do the plaintiffs argue that any of this data comparing the incidence of embolic-thrombotic events . . . constitutes newly acquired information. Id. (footnote omitted).
  • [T]he findings directed towards the risk of ischemic stroke for [the drug] users do not constitute newly acquired information. Id. at *15.
  • [P]laintiffs do not allege, however, that this expert guidance contains, or is founded upon, any newly acquired information regarding reversal agents or the treatment of excessive bleeding." Id.
  • "[P]laintiffs do not allege that this statement contains newly acquired information about what constitutes a safe residual drug level." Id. at *16.
  • "[T]his article does not refer to any new information that would have permitted the defendants to amend the [drug's] label. And, in their opposition to this motion, the plaintiffs do not argue that it does." Id.
  • "[P]laintiffs do not contend that any of the five remaining documents . . . contains newly acquired information regarding an undisclosed risk of bleeding. Several of these articles merely express a desire for further investigation. Id.

Thus, although plaintiffs loaded up their amended complaint with no fewer than "34 warnings that the defendants allegedly failed to provide," 2017 WL 1906875, at *11, there was no safety in numbers. None of their supposedly missing warnings was based on "newly acquired information" as defined and required by the FDA's CBE regulation.

Because, plaintiffs could not point to any "newly acquired information" to support their warning-related allegations, those allegations fell outside the scope of the Levine CBE exception and were preempted, because under Mensing/Bartlett such warnings could not be added without prior FDA approval. 2017 WL 1906875, at *9.

Next, in accordance with practically all law, Utts II held that preemption could be decided on a motion to dismiss. A "determination regarding preemption is a conclusion of law." Id. at *19 (pointing out that Mensing had been decided on a motion to dismiss). To the extent that the Third Circuit's aberrant Fosamax decision was pertinent, it was distinguishable. Fosamax was limited to "clear evidence" determinations, and in Utts II, because plaintiffs offered no "new" information, clear evidence was never at issue. Id. at *19-20. Finally, plaintiffs were "not entitled to discovery on preempted claims." Id. at *20 (discussing TwIqbal).

In a way, the new evidence requirement discussed in Utts II resembles the so called "public disclosure" requirement that is a defense to False Claims Act claims ( see here for more discussion), except that the "newness" of the information in preemption of state-law warning claims is measured against the evidence presented to the FDA, as opposed to the public.

Buckman Preemption

Utts II also found fraud-on-the-FDA preemption under Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001). Plaintiffs ran from their blatant fraud-on-the-FDA allegations, asking that they "be read merely as evidentiary background." 2017 WL 1906875, at *26. The court read them as they were written (and no doubt intended), and found preemption:

Each of the statements on which the fraud claim is premised depends on statements made to and approved by the FDA. There is no newly acquired information that required or suggested that the allegedly fraudulent statements should be altered to remain truthful and non-fraudulent. Accordingly, the fraud claims are preempted.

Id.

Other FDCA-Related Issues

On other FDCA-related issues, Utts II ends up on our Adverse Drug/Device Event cheat sheet because of its discussion of how voluntarily reported adverse events aren't legitimate proof of causation:

Federal regulations advise that a report submitted by a manufacturer "does not necessarily reflect a conclusion by the [manufacturer] or FDA that the report or information constitutes an admission that the drug caused or contributed to an adverse effect." 21 C.F.R. § 314.80(l). As the FDA Website explains:

FDA does not require that a causal relationship between a product and event be proven, and reports do not always contain enough detail to properly evaluate an event. Further, FDA does not receive reports for every adverse event or medication error that occurs with a product. Many factors can influence whether or not an event will be reported, such as the time a product has been marketed and publicity about an event.

The Supreme Court has similarly warned that "[t]he fact that a user of a drug has suffered an adverse event, standing alone, does not mean that the drug caused that event." Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27, 44 (2011). I n sum, "the mere existence of reports of adverse events . . . says nothing in and of itself about whether the drug is causing the adverse events." Id.

Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *12.

In addition, Utts II contains an excellent discussion of the harmful effects of overwarning. The need to prevent overwarning is the reason that the CBE regulation does not apply to all information, new or old, that could in some way "strengthen" existing warnings:

The FDA has recognized that "[e]xaggeration of risk, or inclusion of speculative or hypothetical risks, could discourage appropriate use of a beneficial drug . . . or decrease the usefulness and accessibility of important information by diluting or obscuring it." Indeed, "labeling that includes theoretical hazards not well-grounded in scientific evidence can cause meaningful risk information to lose its significance." For this reason, the CBE regulation requires that there be sufficient evidence of a causal association between the drug and the information sought to be added.

Utts II, 2017 WL 1906875, at *8 (all quotes from "Supplemental Applications Proposing Labeling Changes for Approved Drugs, Biologics, and Medical Devices," 73 Fed. Reg. 2848 (FDA Jan. 16, 2008).

Another notable FDA-related aspect of Utts II has to do with so-called "comparative claims" – claims that one medication is better than another in some respect. Plaintiffs often claim (as they did in Utts II) that there is some sort of duty to warn that ones product is less safe than its competition. However, Utts II points out that the FDA does not permit such claims except when supported by specific types and amounts of scientific evidence. "[A]ny claim comparing the drug to which the labeling applies with other drugs in terms of frequency, severity, or character of adverse reactions must be based on adequate and well-controlled studies." 2017 WL 1906875, at *7 (citing 21 C.F.R. §201.57(c)(7)(iii)). Further, "federal regulations do not require a manufacturer to include information about a competitor's product or progress." Id. at *16 (citing 21 C.F.R. §§201.56, 201.57, 201.80).

State-Law Warning Issues

Beyond its preemption and other FDCA-related aspects, Utts II has a load of other helpful holdings, mostly about California law. The decision contains an excellent discussion of the state of the art defense. 2017 WL 1906875, at *10. It also points out that, the California Supreme Court's holding – quite apart from preemption – that as a matter of federal/state comity, warning liability does not exist as a matter of state law where the purported duty flies in the face of FDA regulation:

Even where a risk is "known" or "knowable" at the time of distribution, under California law, a manufacturer "may not be held liable for failing to give a warning it has been expressly precluded by the FDA from giving." Thus, if the manufacturer disclosed to the FDA "state-of-the-art scientific data concerning the alleged risk" and the FDA determined, after its review, "that the pharmaceutical manufacturer was not permitted to warn − e.g., because the data was inconclusive or the risk was too speculative to justify a warning," then the manufacturer could not be held strictly liable for failure to warn. "[T]he FDA's conclusion that there was, in effect, no 'known risk' is controlling."

2017 WL 1906875, at *11 (all quotations from Carlin v. Superior Court, 920 P.2d 1347 (Cal. 1996)). Thus, the same grounds that support preemption as a matter of federal law – where, as here, the FDA says "no" – also preclude liability as a matter of state law.

In tandem with preemption, Utts II also holds that the defendant's drug labeling was adequate as a matter of California law on the bleeding issues raised by plaintiffs – just as our prior post thought it should. In general, the label "clearly discloses that there is a risk of excessive bleeding and that there is no known antidote if that occurs." 2017 WL 1906875, at *21. Nor could plaintiffs prevail with any of the usual nitpicking that goes on in this type of litigation.

  • Monitoring – "The label provides, in unambiguous terms, all of the scientifically reliable information that physicians may need to determine how to monitor their patients." Id.
  • Bleeding Reversal – A "recommendation is to discontinue [the drug] and apply 'standard supportive treatment and other local measures' . . . does not supply a basis for a plausible claim that the label needed to add further guidance." Id. at *22 (quoting medical article).
  • Dosage – Plaintiffs do "not identify any research or data that undermines or contradicts the dosing guidance" and "speculation about information that the defendants may possess is insufficient to plausibly plead a claim." Id. (citing TwIqbal).

Similarlly, plaintiffs other warning-based claims failed due to the adequacy of the warning. Id. at *24 (implied warranty), *26-27 (fraud); *29 (consumer fraud)

Finally, here are some other California warning-related nuggets we can use: (1) Under the learned intermediary rule, "a manufacturer discharges its duty to warn if it provides adequate warnings to the physician about any known or reasonably knowable dangerous side effects, regardless of whether the warning reaches the patient." 2017 WL 1906875, at *11. (2) "[P]harmaceutical manufacturer[s] may not be required to provide warning of a risk known to the medical community." Id. (quoting Carlin). (3) "[W]arnings relevant to any breach of warranty claim are those directed to the physician rather than the patient." Id. at *22 (quoting Carlin) (emphasis original). (4) The opinion notes that the learned intermediary rule applies to California consumer fraud claims. Id. at *28 n.32.

Looking Forward

Utts II contains by far the most detailed discussion to date of the interplay between preemption and the "newly acquired evidence" requirement of the FDA's CBE regulation. It would be notable for that reason alone. However, it also finds the labeling adequate as a matter of law, which is second highly significant ruling in any prescription medical product litigation. What's more, since the entire Utts amended complaint is now dismissed with prejudice, not only Utts II, but also the original Utts design defect preemption ruling, is now appealable.

Any appeal would be interesting. Every ruling in Utts II is double-breasted, in that preemption is bolstered by independent state law grounds. That is not the case with design defect preemption in the original Utts decision, where preemption is the sole basis for dismissal. Utts, 2016 WL 7429449, at *12. So, if plaintiffs were to appeal, their only clean shot at preemption would involve their design claim. In any event, the preemption rulings in both Utts (Yates v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 808 F.3d 281 (6th Cir. 2015)), and Utts II (Celexa, 779 F.3d 34) are supported by court of appeals decisions, as our preemption cheat sheet demonstrates. At best, in a hypothetical appeal, we would get an affirmance and reinforcing appellate precedent supporting preemption in innovator drug cases. At worst, there would be a circuit split, which would offer the further (double-hypothetical) possibility of additional Supreme Court review of what Utts II called the Levine "trilogy." 2017 WL 1906875, at *9. While we always prefer to win, whenever, however, and as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, we certainly would find another shot at innovator drug preemption in the Supreme Court an interesting proposition.

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

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