United States: No Voluntary Dismissal for Plaintiffs, and a Summary Judgment Win for Defendants, in Central District of California Risperdal Case

Last Updated: November 10 2017
Article by Rachel B. Weil

In the mass torts world in which we find ourselves, glimmers of jurisprudential light can seem few and far between. Two things we love are good warnings causation decisions and sneaky plaintiffs getting caught at their own games.  Today's case has both.  In Thompson v. Janssen Pharm., Inc., 2017 WL 5135548 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 23, 2017), the court considered simultaneous motions:  the plaintiffs' motion for voluntary dismissal without prejudice and the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiff began taking Risperdal in 2001 after he was diagnosed with tics and other disorders, and he alleged that the drug caused him to develop gynecomastia (breast enlargement). Nevertheless, he continued – and continues – to take Risperdal (sixteen years, five doctors, and counting) because it effectively controls his tics, notwithstanding his alleged gynecomastia, his lawsuit, and his doctor's recommendation that he stop taking the drug.

The Plaintiffs' Motion for Voluntary Dismissal without Prejudice

The plaintiffs sued in the Central District of California, asserting the usual litany of claims. One day before the defendant moved for summary judgment, the plaintiffs moved for voluntary dismissal without prejudice so they could re-file their case in state court and park it in the already-existing JCCP, California's version of an MDL.  They claimed that, though they had "been diligently seeking discovery" to prove their case, they were "unable to do so effectively" in federal court. Thompson, 2017 WL 5135548 at *4.

The court explained that factors relevant to its decision included: 1) the opposing party's effort and expense in preparing for trial; 2) excessive delay and lack of diligence by the moving party in prosecuting the action; 3) insufficient explanation of the need for dismissal; and 4) the fact that the opposing party has moved for summary judgment. Id. at *5 (citations omitted).  Naturally, the plaintiff argued that all of these factors weighed in favor of granting the motion, but the court disagreed.

The court pointed out that, though the plaintiffs argued that they had been diligent in prosecuting his case, they had "failed to serve expert disclosure or expert reports." Id. at *6.  Moreover, through the plaintiffs' motion was "purportedly premised on their intention to join the pending state court [Risperdal litigation]," they gave "no explanation as to why they waited until . . . mere days before the summary judgment deadline" when they had notice of the state court litigation for more than a year. Id. The court concluded that this was "an insufficient explanation of the need for dismissal," one of the factors to be considered. Id. (internal punctuation omitted).

In addition, though the defendants' motion for summary judgment was not pending when the plaintiffs filed their motion (it was filed the next day), the defendants had notified the plaintiffs that they would be filing for summary judgment before the plaintiffs moved for dismissal. The court held that "the proximity of the two motions raise[d] the inference that that Plaintiffs' motion might have been motivated by a desire to . . . avoid an imminent adverse ruling by way of Defendants' summary judgment motion and also avoid the consequence of their failure to serve expert disclosures." Id. (internal punctuation and citation omitted).

Simply put, as the court correctly perceived, the plaintiffs' tactic was a transparent attempt to hide their meritless case in another mass proceeding on the chance that an inventory settlement would line their pockets at some point down the road.  The court concluded, ". . . Plaintiffs have not provided sufficient justification for voluntary dismissal given the untimeliness of the request and the proximity to Defendants' motion for summary judgment." Id.  Motion denied.

The Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

It was undisputed that all of the plaintiffs' claims were premised on the defendants' alleged failure to warn about the rate of gynecomastia. As such, the defendants argued that all of the plaintiff's claims failed because, inter alia: 1) the plaintiff assumed the risk by continuing to take the drug once he was aware of the alleged risk; and 2) the plaintiff could not prove "warnings causation;" in other words, he could not satisfy his burden of proving that that a different warning would have changed his doctors' decisions to prescribe the drug for him. Id.

As to assumption of the risk, the defendants argued that the plaintiff was aware of the risk of gynecomastia but "continues to use Risperdal because he believes the benefits of the medicine in treating his condition outweigh the very risks that he has sued upon." Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  The court disagreed, holding that the record did not clearly indicate that the plaintiff's treating physicians discussed the risk of gynecomastia with the plaintiff.

But it was clear, on the record, that all of the plaintiff's prescribing physicians were themselves aware of the risk of gynecomastia. And the plaintiff "provided no evidence that a different warning would have altered the physicians' decisions to prescribe Risperdal."  Therefore, the plaintiff could not "demonstrate the [warnings] causation required to survive summary judgment under California's learned intermediary doctrine." Id. at *8.

Nor were the plaintiffs' claims saved by California's "overpromotion exception." As the court explained, "California courts have in the past recognized that the learned intermediary doctrine may not apply where a medication has been overpromoted to the extent that any warnings would have been nullified." Id. at *9 (citation omitted).  But the overpromotion exception applies only in "unusual cases" (our California colleagues tell us that it is very rarely applied), and not "where a plaintiff's prescribing physician did not rely on promotional statements when choosing treatment options." Id. (citation omitted).  In this case, there was no evidence that any of the plaintiff's prescribers relied on the defendant's promotional activities, and the exception did not apply.

And so, in the absence of evidence of warnings causation, the court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The correct result, and a nice cautionary tale for plaintiffs thinking they can game the system, ignore both rules and law, and await the filling of their outstretched hands.  Does our defense heart good.

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

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