United States: How Not To Create An "Exception" To The Learned Intermediary Rule

Last Updated: August 3 2017
Article by James Beck

We've heard more about the constitutional "emoluments clause," Art 1 §9, clause 8, this year than during the entire rest of our legal careers.  But while it's illegal for anybody working for the U.S. government to accept anything of value from a "foreign state," that doesn't make it illegal, unethical, or even particularly noteworthy for a "learned intermediary" to accept things of value from prescription medical product manufacturers – provided, of course, that doing so doesn't adversely affect patient care.

For example, the FDA knows and accepts that not only patients/subjects in clinical trials, but also physicians/investigators are routinely paid for their trouble. The FDA's longstanding Guidance for Industry Financial Disclosure by Clinical Investigators does not require disclosure of "normal reimbursable expenditures" that compensate investigators for routine costs, as long as payments do not "exceed reasonable expectations."  2001 WL 34768176, at *11.  Such expenses aren't seen as having a "potential for bias." Id. at *1.  Even interests that could potentially be a source of bias aren't prohibited, or limited – they must only be disclosed:

  • Compensation the "value of which could be affected by study outcome."
  • "A proprietary interest in the tested product"
  • An "equity interest in the [study] sponsor."
  • "Any equity interest in a publicly held company that exceeds $50,000"
  • "Other sorts" of payments with "a cumulative monetary value of $25,000 or more made by the [study] sponsor."

Id. at *1-2.

Thus, we don't have much good to say about a couple of Texas district court opinions that would create an exception to the learned intermediary rule whenever the plaintiff's prescriber has received any sort of compensation.  Not only is creating exceptions to state common-law rules none of a federal court's business, but such a broad exception is contrary to precedent and totally unnecessary.

Anyway, the first of these cases was Murthy v. Abbott Laboratories, 847 F. Supp.2d 958 (S.D. Tex. 2011).  The plaintiff was a participant in the defendant's clinical trial, and signed the standard informed consent documents to participate. Id. at 964.  Murthy refused to apply the learned intermediary rule, "first" because the defendant "arguably directly marketed" the drug to the plaintiff "by creating a promotional video," and "second" because the prescriber – plaintiff's doctor – "was compensated by [defendant]." Id. at 967.

Murthy then launched into an extended discussion of the "foundations" of the learned intermediary rule under Texas law.  Id. at 967-70.  This exegesis was not necessary.  The Fifth Circuit, whose law Texas district courts are bound to follow, has repeatedly recognized that Texas applies the learned intermediary rule to all prescription medical products.  Pustejovsky v. PLIVA, Inc., 623 F.3d 271, 276 (5th Cir. 2010) (generic drug); Ebel v. Eli Lilly & Co., 321 Fed. Appx. 350, 355-56 (5th Cir. 2009) (branded drug); Ackermann v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, 526 F.3d 203, 207-08 (5th Cir. 2008) (same); McNeil v. Wyeth, 462 F.3d 364, 368 (5th Cir. 2006) (same); Porterfield v. Ethicon, Inc., 183 F.3d 464, 467-68 (5th Cir. 1999) (medical device); Skotak v. Tenneco Resins, Inc., 953 F.2d 909, 912 (5th Cir. 1992) (contrast medium); Hurley v. Lederle Laboratories, 863 F.2d 1173, 1178 (5th Cir. 1988) (vaccine).  The only loophole to the learned intermediary rule ever recognized under Texas law is the so-called "mass vaccination" exception – where a nominally prescription product was dispensed with no doctor, and thus no physician-patient relationship, actually present.  See Reyes v. Wyeth Laboratories, 498 F.2d 1264, 1277-78 (5th Cir. 1974).

However, Murthy was bound and determined to change Texas law.  Rather than follow binding Fifth Circuit precedent, the decision latched onto a "recent[]" decision by a "Texas state appellate court [that] recognized an exception to the learned intermediary doctrine."  Id. at 970.  That was the so-called "direct-to-consumer" ("DTC") exception where, according to Murthy, "a drug manufacturer practices consumer marketing that fraudulently touts the drug's efficacy while failing to warn of the risks."  Id.  After a long paragraph describing the DTC exception, Murthy pointed out (accurately) that the Texas Supreme Court had yet to pass on any learned intermediary rule exception.  Id.

At this point Murthy imitated Captain Kirk – boldly going where no federal court had gone before.  In the absence of on-point Texas precedent, Murthy elected to "consider, among other sources, treatises, law review commentaries, [and] decisions from other jurisdictions." Id. at 971 (citation and quotation marks omitted).  What followed were several pages (and long footnotes) that resembled what we saw in Perez v. Wyeth Laboratories Inc., 734 A.2d 1245, 1257-59 (N.J. 1999), or State ex rel. Johnson & Johnson Corp. v. Karl, 220 W.Va. 463, 472-75 (W. Va. 2007) – both of which were cited in Murthy – long on rhetoric and citations to law reviews, but notably lacking in precedent that actually did what Murthy was proposing.

What did Murthy propose?

First it jumped on the DTC exception bandwagon.  Id. at 971 ("the Court believes that the Texas Supreme Court will likely agree with the Court of Appeals' reasoning").  "By creating and disseminating a promotional video . . ., [defendant] may have circumvented the doctor-patient relationship." Id.

Then Murthy turned to the "gifts or compensation" that the prescriber-investigator had received for participating in the clinical trial in which plaintiff had been enrolled:

Studies have documented, however, that gifts or compensation from drug companies influence medical professionals' treatment decisions.  Conflicts of interest also arise when clinicians stand to gain from enrolling their own patients as subjects in clinical trials. Indeed, a doctor who receives gifts or compensation from a drug company may no longer, as the prescriber, stand between the drug and the ultimate consumer, as the doctor has an incentive to prescribe a particular drug or, in this case, enroll a patient in a clinical trial. . . .  Under certain circumstances, when a physician receives compensation or gifts from drug companies, his or her role as the neutral decision-maker may be diminished.  As such, dismissal of [plaintiff's] failure to warn claim on learned intermediary grounds would not be appropriate at this time.  Rather, the Court would have to examine the factual circumstances surrounding the compensation of [plaintiff's] physician in order to evaluate whether application of the learned intermediary doctrine is appropriate.

Id. at 971-73 (citations, quotation marks and two gigantic footnotes to "studies" omitted).  In the end, however, all this discussion in Murthy was merely an extended exercise in obiter dictum – a judicial hit and run − as the warning claims in that case had to be dismissed for another reason.  See Id. at 975-76 (all warning claims fail under Texas statutory presumption of adequacy in FDA-approved warnings).

The second case, In re Depuy Orthopaedics, Inc. Pinnacle Hip Implant Products Liability Litigation, 2016 WL 6268090 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 5, 2016) ("DOPHI"), purported to turn Murthy's case-by-case evaluation into a blanket compensation exception:

Moreover, the learned intermediary doctrine does not apply when a manufacturer compensates a physician or incentivizes him or her to use its product.   Murthy v. Abbott Labs, 847 F. Supp. 2d 958, 971-73 (S.D. Texas 2012).   Because of the relationship between [defendant] and [the prescribers], a fact question exists regarding the legitimacy and objectiveness of [these prescribers] that precludes application of the learned intermediary doctrine as a basis for summary judgment.

Id. at *6.

There are a number of problems with this nascent emoluments exception to the learned intermediary rule.  First, its meager support in Texas precedent was blown away when the Texas Supreme Court unanimously reversed the "appellate court" decision that Murthy had followed and just an unanimously adopted the learned intermediary rule:

[W]e hold that a prescription drug manufacturer fulfills its duty to warn end users of its product's risks by providing adequate warnings to the intermediaries who prescribe the drug and, once fulfilled, it has no further duty to warn the end users directly. . . .  Our decision to apply the learned intermediary doctrine in the context of prescription drugs, prescribed through a physician-patient relationship, not only comports with our prior references to the doctrine and many years of Texas case law, but it places us alongside the vast majority of other jurisdictions that have considered the issue. . . .  The underlying rationale for the validity of the learned intermediary doctrine remains just as viable today as stated by Judge Wisdom in 1974.

Centocor, Inc. v. Hamilton, 372 S.W.3d 140, 157-58 (Tex. 2012) (long string-cite footnote and quotation from Reyes, supra omitted).

As for exceptions to the learned intermediary rule, the Texas Supreme Court declined to recognize any.  Id. at 160 n.18 ("we need not determine whether Texas law should recognize exceptions to the learned intermediary doctrine").  Particularly with respect to the DTC exception Centocor held:

We acknowledge that some situations may require exceptions to the learned intermediary doctrine, but without deciding whether Texas law should recognize a DTC advertising exception when a prescription drug manufacturer distributes intentionally misleading information directly to patients or prospective patients, we hold that, based on the facts of this case, no exception applies.

Id. at 162 (footnote omitted)  (emphasis added).  In the omitted footnote the Texas Supreme Court further criticized the decision that Murthy had blithely predicted it would follow, stating "[t]he court of appeals' reasoning . . . relegates physicians to a mere dispensary role of prescriptions [and] fails to consider the important professional and ethical standards the law requires of physicians."  Id. at n.24 (citing Texas statutes governing physician conduct).

After the Centocor reversal, the putative emoluments exception to the learned intermediary rule in Texas rests on precisely zero precedent, only the law journal articles and other studies that Murthy used to justify its prediction.

That brings us to the second point.  Perez and Karl, however wrong we believe them to be (and Karl has since been legislatively overturned), were decided by state high courts.  Those courts have the authority to change state law, even changes based entirely on academic musings, if they so decide.  Murthy and DOPHI, being federal district courts exercising diversity jurisdiction, do not have such authority.  We've been over this many times before on the blog.  In the words of the Supreme Court:

A federal court in diversity is not free to engraft onto those state rules exceptions or modifications which may commend themselves to the federal court, but which have not commended themselves to the State in which the federal court sits.

Day & Zimmerman, Inc. v. Challoner, 423 U.S. 3, 4 (1975).  The Fifth Circuit, which as we mentioned includes Texas, agrees:

No Texas court has interpreted [the law] that way.  And we see no other sufficiently strong indication to make an Erie guess that the Supreme Court of Texas would do so.  [I]t is not for us to adopt innovative theories of Texas law, but simply to apply that law as it currently exists.

Barnett v. DynCorp International, LLC, 831 F.3d 296, 307 (5th Cir. 2016) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

[I]n hazarding an Erie guess, our task is to attempt to predict state law, not to create or modify it.  The practical effect of adopting an exception like the one [plaintiffs] propose is the creation of a previously nonexistent state law cause of action.  Therefore, [plaintiffs] carry a heavy burden to assure us that we would not be making law.

Memorial Hermann Healthcare System Inc. v. Eurocopter Deutschland, GmbH, 524 F.3d 676, 678 (5th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted).  Accord, e.g., Johnson v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., 758 F.3d 605, 616 (5th Cir. 2014); Demahy v. Schwarz Pharma, Inc., 702 F.3d 177, 184 (5th Cir. 2012); Holden v. Connex-Metalna Management Consulting GmbH, 302 F.3d 358, 365 (5th Cir. 2002); Batts v. Tow-Motor Forklift Co., 66 F.3d 743, 749 (5th Cir. 1995); Solomon v. Walgreen Co., 975 F.2d 1086, 1089 (5th Cir. 1992); Dean v. Dean, 837 F.2d 1267, 1268 (5th Cir. 1988); United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Weben Industries, Inc., 794 F.2d 1005, 1008 (5th Cir. 1986); Galindo v. Precision American Corp., 754 F.2d 1212, 1217 (5th Cir. 1985).

Finally, our third point is that no other state in the union has adopted any sort of emoluments exception to the learned intermediary rule.  Rather, such claims have been occasionally made, and always rejected, in other states.  That's quite logical.  Unlike the mass vaccination exception, less accepted exceptions involving consumer choice products (contraceptives) or FDA-mandated DTC warnings – or even the New Jersey-only DTC advertisement "exception" – every other purported exception to the learned intermediary rule has at its justification some kind of communication that avoids the physician-patient relationship.  Claims about financial relationships with prescribers don't do that.  Rather, they seek to attack an existing relationship using emoluments to claim the physician wasn't "independent" of the drug/device company.  That's not a proper "exception" to the learned intermediary rule; that's a causation issue, if anything other than a smoke screen.  To the extent there is ever any evidence of actual influence over a particular patient's prescription decision, that is more logically dealt with as tending to defeat a causation defense, but it is not a basis to require direct manufacturer-to-patient warnings where a physician/patient relationship has already been established, which is what exceptions to the learned intermediary rule require.

The first cases to assert financial relationships in opposition to the learned intermediary rule were in Ohio.  In Blatt v. Hamilton, 1986 WL 2925 (Ohio App. March 6, 1986), the plaintiff claimed that his prescriber's receipt of free drug samples meant that the prescriber should be viewed as the defendant's agent.  The court disagreed:

The mere fact that a salesman of the manufacturing company gives samples to a doctor and the doctor distributes these samples to a patient, without more, does not prove an agency relationship. . . .  There was no evidence that . . . the manufacturer, had control as to whom, when, in what doses, and in what form, topical or oral, the [drug] was prescribed or distributed by [the prescriber].

Id. at *3 (citation omitted).  Then, in Tracy v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 569 N.E.2d 875 (Ohio 1991), the Ohio Supreme Court considered facts quite like Murthy – the prescriber had treated the patient under an investigational research protocol and received a per patient payment from the manufacturer.  Id. at 879.  The receipt of routine research-related compensation did not, Tracy ruled, compromise the prescriber's independence:

Although [defendant] paid [the prescriber] for each participant in the . . . study program, the evidence does not support a finding that [the prescriber] was an employee of [defendant] or that [the prescriber] was acting under the control of [defendant] rather than as a physician exercising his independent judgment. . . .  [Defendant] did not control [the prescriber's] judgment, duties and responsibilities as he used [the drug] in the treatment of patients.  Accordingly, we find that [the prescriber] was acting as an independent physician in dispensing [the drug] to [plaintiff], that he was a learned intermediary and that the trial court correctly instructed the jury on the learned intermediary doctrine.

Id.

Participation in clinical trials similarly did not affect the learned intermediary rule in Little v. Depuy Motech, Inc., 2000 WL 1519962 (S.D. Cal. June 13, 2000).  "The Court [was] not persuaded by Plaintiffs argument that [the prescriber] was not an independent intermediary because he was part of an investigational team" that studied the type of product and surgery at issue.  To the contrary, such study "further support[ed] the finding that [the prescriber] knew about the risks associated with such devices," and thus defeated causation.  Id. at *9.  Likewise, in a Texas trial court decision neither Murthy nor DOPHI cited, the plaintiff "contend[ed] that [defendant's] alleged . . . misconduct influenced [the prescriber's] treatment recommendations because of the fees he received."  Baker v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 1999 WL 811334, at *24 (Tex. Dist. Harris Co. June 7, 1999), aff'd mem., 2000 WL 991697 (Tex. App. July 20, 2000).  The court gave that allegation the back of its hand.  "This contention has been rejected."  Id.

In In re Trasylol Products Liability Litigation, 2011 WL 2117257 (S.D. Fla. May 23, 2011) (applying Alabama law), allegations that the prescriber was "biased because he was a consultant for [defendant], and was paid to attend a Trasylol conference" failed to prevent summary judgment under the learned intermediary rule. Id. at *4.

Plaintiff's assertions that the learned intermediary doctrine should not apply because [the prescriber] is biased and failed to exercise independent medical judgment do not persuade me. . . .  Plaintiff does not offer evidence that [the prescriber's] choice to prescribe [the drug] for [plaintiff] was not an informed one, or that he did not exercise individualized medical judgment in making that decision.

Id.

In less routine situations, allegations that prescriber held stock in the defendant or received large sums in compensation have not affected the applicability of the learned intermediary rule.  In one of Bexis' Bone Screw appeals, Talley v. Danek Medical, Inc., 179 F.3d 154 (4th Cir. 1999) (applying Virginia law), the prescriber was a an equity holder in, and a paid consultant for, the defendant.  Id. at 164 (paid to teach surgical procedures, annual $250,000 consulting fee, travel budget, research funds, and 25,000 shares of stock).  The plaintiff argued that, because of these ties, the prescriber "cannot be considered an intermediary, learned or otherwise."  Id.  Summary judgment under the learned intermediary rule was affirmed because that evidence was not connected to anything that occurred in the plaintiff's treatment.  "[T]here is no evidence that the consulting relationship between [the prescriber] and [defendant] interfered with [his] independent medical judgment in treating [plaintiff].  On the contrary, the evidence suggests otherwise."  Id.  Whether financial ties caused injury by lack of "independence" was a "complex question would depend on the nature of the relationship between the manufacturer and the physician and the extent to which the physician was in fact afforded independence in making medical judgments."  Id. The Trasylol decision followed Talley.  2011 WL 2117257, at *4.

In In re Zyprexa Products Liability Litigation, 2010 WL 348276, at *11 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 22, 2010) (applying Illinois law), the plaintiff "contend[ed] that summary judgment should not be granted on learned intermediary grounds" because his prescribing physician was "biased" by having "conducted paid research for at least ten pharmaceutical companies, including defendant," having been "a paid speaker for at least six pharmaceutical companies, including [defendant]," and having "accepting $490,000 in compensation from" drug companies.  Id. at *11.  Such facts did not oust the learned intermediary rule because nothing showed any "bias specific to" the drug or towards the defendant.  Id.

Allegations of compensation of a similar magnitude did not impair California's learned intermediary rule in In re Vioxx Cases, 2006 WL 6305292 (Cal. Super. Dec. 19, 2006).  A plaintiff argued that his prescriber could "not play the role of learned intermediary because it paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to conduct research and give lectures."  Id.  Absent "evidence of actual bias" the compensation didn't matter:

Payment to a physician, standing alone, does not deprive the physician of learned intermediary status. Such payment for research is a widespread practice, yet the court was unable to find a case where a physician who was paid for research was considered to have abrogated his or her role of learned intermediary.  Therefore, such payments alone do not constitute a "special circumstance" for purposes of setting aside the learned intermediary doctrine.  Indeed, if such payments alone sufficed, a manufacturer would have to obtain the patient list of every physician it pays for research in order to somehow provide direct warnings.

Id.

Nor does Murthy itself have much of a track record.  DiBartolo v. Abbott Laboratories, 914 F. Supp.2d 601 (S.D.N.Y. 2012), rejected Murthy's rationale notwithstanding plaintiff's allegation that her prescriber "may have had a direct financial relationship with [defendant]." Id. at 613.

This argument fails on both the law and the facts.  On the law, plaintiff has not cited any New York decision that adopts an exception to [learned intermediary rule] where physicians received compensation from drug manufacturers.  Murthy applied Texas law, and plaintiff has not demonstrated that Murthy is part of any trend supporting an exception . . . where drug manufacturers compensate physicians.  On the facts, moreover, plaintiff's allegations that [defendant] compensated [the prescriber] are completely speculative, based entirely on what [defendant] allegedly did in other cases involving other physicians.

Id. at 616 (citation and footnote omitted).  Even assuming what plaintiff claimed was true, however, would not oust the learned intermediary rule, because "[i]t is not clear . . . that manufacturer-compensated physicians would in fact neglect their professional duties to an extent that would undermine" the rule.  Id. at 616 n.6.  See also Calisi v Abbott Laboratories, 2013 WL 5462274, at *3-4 (D. Mass. Feb. 25, 2013) (refusing to follow Murthy and rejecting any "physician compensation exception" to the learned intermediary rule).

Finally, similar emolument-related allegations have failed as challenges to otherwise uncontradicted prescriber testimony.  In Eck v. Parke, Davis & Co., 256 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 2001) (applying Oklahoma law), summary judgment for the defendant was affirmed under the learned intermediary rule on the basis of the prescriber's prior independent knowledge of the relevant product risks.  Id. at 1019.  Even with the benefit of a heeding presumption, the plaintiff could not successfully assert the prescriber's "research for several pharmaceutical companies" as a basis for creating a credibility issue.  Id. at 1024.  Such pharmaceutical affiliations, "standing alone, however, merely offer speculation as to [the prescriber's] motives for testifying and they are clearly insufficient to call into question either [her]  credibility or the veracity of her statements."  Id.  "Absent evidence suggesting [the prescriber] was otherwise influenced by the defendants, we . . . find no reason to question her credibility or the truth of her testimony."  Id.  See Miller v. Pfizer, Inc., 196 F. Supp.2d 1095, 1129 & n.108 (D. Kan. 2002), ("no reasonable jury" could "discredit" unrefuted prescriber testimony based on "bias . . . arising from his business relationship with [defendant], i.e., the fact that at or near the time he prescribed [the drug] for [plaintiff, he] was a paid consultant"), aff'd, 356 F.3d 1326 (10th Cir. 2004).

Based on the above, we believe there is no legal basis for an "exception" to the learned intermediary rule predicated on a prescribing physician having a pre-existing relationship, financial or otherwise, with a defendant manufacturer of prescription medical products.  Perhaps, in an extreme case, there might be actual evidence of bias affecting a particular plaintiff's medical treatment, but we have yet to see any such case.  Even in the case of significant emoluments, see Talley, Zyprexa, Vioxx, supra, plaintiffs have been unable to establish a jury submissible case of actual, causal bias.  Murthy and DOPHI, exceeded the proper role of federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction, and their novel predictions are belied by extensive contrary precedent.

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

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No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

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