United States: Good Testimony From Neutral Prescriber Leads To Summary Judgment In Plavix Litigation

Last Updated: August 25 2017
Article by Michelle Yeary

We've posted a lot about Plavix recently but all in the context of the Supreme Court's decision in BMS v. Superior Court on personal jurisdiction. So, we don't blame you if you forgot that the product at issue in that case was Plavix. The product wasn't really at the heart of the analysis. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant having any contacts with or relation to the jurisdiction was where all the action was. But that's state court. There is also a federal MDL concerning Plavix where the claims of plaintiffs who weren't trying to be "litigation tourists" are moving forward on the substance. But it doesn't look like they are moving very far if the recent decision in Armantrout v. Bristol-Myers Squibb, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131334 (D.N.J. Aug. 17, 2017) is any indication.

Plavix is an anticoagulant which is approved for prescription alone or in conjunction with aspirin. Because the purpose of an anticoagulant is to prevent the formation of blood clots, it is well known that Plavix carries an increased risk of bleeding. Information about the risk of bleeding has been in the Plavix label since it entered the market. Id. at *4-5. While most of that is probably common knowledge, we thought it warranted repeating given that the crux of the claims in this litigation are for failure to warn. Failure to warn of a risk known by practitioners and most lay persons and that was disclosed in the product's labeling. If this isn't an uphill battle for plaintiffs, we don't know what is.

Plaintiff alleged that he was prescribed and used Plavix in combo-therapy with aspirin following implantation of a stent to treat his acute coronary syndrome. Plaintiff used Plavix and aspirin for 8 years before he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal bleeding. Id. at *7-8. His prescriber testified at his deposition that:

  • He was aware of the risk of bleeding the entire time he prescribed Plavix, id. at *9;
  • He was aware of the increased risk of bleeding when prescribed in combination therapy with aspirin, another anticoagulant, id.;
  • He believed that combo-therapy was medically necessary for the type of stent implanted in plaintiff, id. at *10;
  • In his medical assessment, the benefits of combination therapy outweighed the risks for this plaintiff, id.;
  • "having reviewed all the relevant studies regarding Plavix, he believes – even now – that prescribing Plavix to [plaintiff] was the most appropriate medical therapy." Id. at *21.

We've seen testimony like this before and it simply makes us giddy. It means that there is no causal nexus between any alleged inadequate warning and plaintiff's injuries. If the prescriber was aware of the risk and prescribed anyway – no causation. If the prescriber, knowing the current state of the scientific information, would still prescribe – no causation. No causation, no causation, no causation. We just love the way that sounds.

But plaintiff wasn't going down without at least some fight. He proffered an expert opinion on the adequacy of the warning. His expert opined that defendant failed to warn about the lack of studies evaluating the use of Plavix for greater than one year. Id. at *19. But the court found that was sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Defendant wasn't arguing the sufficiency of the warning but rather whether the prescriber would have prescribed even when provided with the most current research and labeling. Id. at *19-20. So, at oral argument, plaintiff tried to change weapons by arguing that his expert's report called into question the prescriber's credibility.

To make this argument, plaintiff relied on an old New York case that held that prescriber testimony similar to the testimony here was insufficient for resolving the issue of proximate cause because the doctor had a been a defendant in the case and since the testimony was not "self-disserving" the doctor's credibility was in doubt and therefore was an issue for the jury. Id. at *24. But as the court pointed out – the prescriber here wasn't a defendant. "[W]hen the treating physician is not a defendant, but rather a disinterested witness, the same concern regarding credibility is not present." Id. at *25. Unfortunately, there are two decisions from the Southern District of New York and the Second Circuit that without explanation extend the concept of "self-disserving" to testimony of treaters who were not defendants. See id. at *22-25. Fortunately, this judge was more thoughtful in her analysis and, like a federal-judge sitting in diversity should be – was unwilling to enlarge state law. The court found no New York cases endorsing the Second Circuit's decision but found decisions by New York's highest court granting summary judgment relying on unrebutted doctor testimony. Id. at *27. The court also offered an important observation about the cases relied on by plaintiff:

Importantly, if I were to follow [the Second Circuit], summary judgment would never be granted in these types of cases, because a third-party prescriber's testimony would always be subject to doubt, unless the prescriber testified he or she would not have prescribed the drug. Such a one-sided result for a disinterested physician's testimony cannot be correct.

Id. at *25. We agree wholeheartedly.

So, the doctor's credibility isn't in question simply because his testimony isn't "self-disserving." That left plaintiff to argue that the prescriber wasn't credible because he didn't agree with plaintiff's expert. Plaintiff's expert opined that defendant should have warned about the lack of long-term safety and efficacy studies and because the prescriber didn't have such studies while he was prescribing, his testimony wasn't credible. The court found the argument "wholly without merit." Id. at *28-29. Most importantly, plaintiff never questioned the prescriber at this deposition on this issue. Id. at *29. Probably because he didn't think he'd like the answer. The doctor did testify about various studies he read and relied on and each of those studies reported on the duration. So he was both aware of the length of those studies and the lack of any longer studies and that did not change his prescribing decision. Id. at *30.

The bottom line is that plaintiff didn't refute any of the prescriber's testimony. In other words, plaintiff did not meet his burden of proving that a different warning would have altered the doctor's decision to prescribe. In fact, the only evidence in the case is that the doctor was fully aware of the risk when he prescribed and prescribed anyway. Under New York law, the prescriber's independent knowledge of the risk is an intervening event that precludes manufacturer liability regardless of the adequacy of the warning. Id. at *30-31.

Plaintiff also brought a design defect claim, but the court found it was no different than his failure to warn claim and in addition to failing for all the same reasons, also ruled that under New York law a design defect claim can't be based on failure to warn alone. Id. at *36.

Summary judgment wins in Plavix cases are hardly anything new. Take a look at our prior posts here and here. But, it's been a few years since the last wave and maybe Armantrout is the start of another round of dismissals. Given the well-known risk at issue, we wouldn't be surprised to see more Plavix cases fail under the learned intermediary doctrine based on very similar testimony.

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

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