United States: Summary Judgment for Concentric Medical on Design Defect and Warnings Claims Related to Fracture of Merci Retriever Device

Last Updated: May 17 2017
Article by Rachel B. Weil

When last we wrote, we were about to embark on a journey to Budapest and Vienna to visit the Drug and Device Law Rock Climber. We mentioned that we were thrilled to hold tickets to see the Lipizzaner stallions perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, as we had wished for this since we were very small. And in the phrase "hold tickets" lies the rub.  Though our companion warned us, as we locked the door and departed for the airport, to be sure we had the tickets, we somehow arrived in Europe without them and descended into panic.  For, unlike virtually every other admission credential we had used in the past five years, these were not e-tickets or pdfs but were actual, cardboard tickets, mailed to us in a postal envelope.  And they were missing.  Luckily, in this age of e-mailed confirmations and of people everywhere speaking perfect English, we were able to secure duplicate tickets and to see the stunning white horses of our dreams.  But we were warned, so we would have had no one to blame if the outcome had been different.

As was the case in today's decision. Ford v. Rinna, et al., 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1649 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. May 2, 2017), is an unpublished opinion out of the Supreme Court of New York County. The facts are quite tragic.  The plaintiff was being treated for a brain aneurysm by the physician defendant when "a coil escaped" and migrated further into the plaintiff's brain. Ford, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1649 at *1.  The doctor attempted to retrieve the coil using the manufacturing defendant's device after another method failed.  "Retrieval of foreign bodies misplaced during interventional radiologic procedures in the neuro . . . vasculature" was one of the indications in the device's Instructions for Use ("IFU"), which contained warnings about, inter alia, using the proper size of the device (available in a range of sizes) and not performing more than six retrieval attempts in the same vessel using the device.   The IFU also reported that one fracture of the retriever had occurred during clinical trials and provided instructions for reducing the risk of fracture.

The doctor first tried one size of the retriever in the plaintiff. He captured the errant coil, but the retriever fractured when he attempted to retract it.  He tried a larger retriever, which also fractured.  Ultimately, the doctor was able to capture one of the fractured retrievers with a snare but was unable to capture the second retriever or the coil.  The plaintiff was taken for an emergency craniotomy and suffered a major stroke that left him severely brain-damaged.  He sued the doctor and the device manufacturer, and stipulated that claims against the manufacturer would be limited to design defect and failure to warn, and the manufacturer moved for summary judgment on both claims.

In support of its motion, the manufacturer submitted four affidavits.   The first was the affidavit of an engineer employed by the manufacturer's successor.  The engineer stated that he was able to determine the lot number of each device opened by the doctor and that he was able to determine that there were no reported fractures of any devices in the relevant lots except the fractures to the devices used in the plaintiff.  The second affiant was a bioengineer, who stated that the retriever was the state-of-the-art medical device for foreign body removal from the time of the plaintiff's procedure up to the present time.  He also stated that fracture was exceptionally rare in the device in question and that the benefits of the device outweighed the risk of fracture, which is inherent in all retrieval devices. The third affiant, a neurologist, opined that the retriever's IFU expressly warned of the risk of fracture and of vessel damage, that the warnings – including the warning of the precise event that occurred in the plaintiff – were clear an adequate, and that the risks of fracture and vessel damage were "generally known and accepted in the relevant medical community." Id. at *13-14.  Finally, a registered professional engineer opined that "no other commercial engineering or biomedical alloy can come close" to the elasticity and shape memory of the alloy used in the defendant's device, id. at * 15-16, that there is no other material commercially available to manufacture the device for its intended use. Id. at *17.

In opposition, the plaintiff submitted the affidavits of two witnesses. The first, a materials scientist, claimed that he tested the retrieval device under a variety of conditions, that the testing confirmed that cracks and fractures could occur with much greater ease and frequency than the IFU suggested and under conditions of which the IFU did not warn, and that, as such, the IFU did not contain adequate warnings related to the potential for fracture. The second witness, a biomedical engineer, opined, inter alia, that the IFU did not adequately warn of the potential for the device to become entangled or stuck in a vessel and of the difficulty of disengaging it once it was stuck.  He also claimed that there were feasible alternative design features that would have prevented the plaintiff's injury.

The court held that the manufacturer had "establishe[d] prima facie that the IFU conveyed to physician-users the most current knowledge concerning the potential risk of fracture associated with the [device], which is all the law requires." Id. at *33 (citation omitted).  In addition, the IFU "set forth various steps which the physician-user could take to reduce that risk." Id. Finally, the manufacturer "establishe[d] its prima facie entitlement to summary dismissal of plaintiff's design defect claim by establishing that the [device] was state of the art for removing . . . foreign bodies from the neurovasculature, that the device was properly designed and manufactured . . . and . . . incorporated changes made to the [device's predecessor] as well as other modifications that minimized the risk of fracture." Id. at *34 (citations omitted).

Once the manufacturer made its prima facie showing, the burden was on the plaintiff to identify a triable issue of fact. And the court held that the plaintiff did not satisfy this burden.  The court stated, "An expert's affidavit – offered as the only evidence to defeat summary judgment – must contain sufficient allegation to demonstrate that the conclusions it contains are more than mere speculation and would, if offered alone at trial, support a verdict in the proponent's favor." Id. at *35 (citations omitted).  In this case, the plaintiff's experts made "repeated reference to various tests and experiments they performed which they contend[ed] replicated the foreseeable event of the [device] being 'fully stuck' within a patient's cerebral vasculature.  However, noticeably absent . . . is any description . . . of the actual tests and experiments they performed or the conditions under which they performed them . . . [including whether] the tests and experiments . . . were based on accepted industry standards. Id. at *36 (citations omitted).  The court concluded, "Simply stated, there is nothing in the experts' affidavits from which the validity of their ultimate conclusions about the design of the [device] and the adequacy of the IFU can be inferred. . . .In the absence of any reference to a foundational scientific basis for their conclusions, [the plaintiff's experts'] opinions lack sufficient probative value to raise a triable issue of fact" as to design defect or the adequacy of the warnings."  Claims dismissed, summary judgment for the manufacturer.

Ford is a well-reasoned and correct decision that fits nicely into our self-styled crusade against the opinions of experts who should never darken the courthouse steps.  We will keep our eyes open for similar holdings in published, precedential opinions, and we will keep you posted.

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

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