United States: West Virginia Plaintiffs Haunted By Past Excesses

Last Updated: November 13 2017
Article by James Beck

We remember how, shortly after the atrocious decision in Johnson & Johnson v. Karl, 647 S.E.2d 899 (W. Va. 2007), rejecting altogether the learned intermediary rule, litigation tourists visiting West Virginia argued that Karl represented that state's "public policy" and therefore the learned intermediary rule could not apply even to their out-of-state cases under the "public policy" exception to the ordinary rules for sorting out choice of law issues. This was also back in the halcyon days (for the other side) of essentially unlimited plaintiff forum shopping pre-Bauman, so the specter existed that, if this argument succeeded, plaintiffs from all over the country, or even the world, would flock to West Virginia, and by the mere fact of their litigation tourism, thereby rid themselves of one of our side's most significant arguments.

A couple of West Virginia federal courts were sufficiently pro-plaintiff to buy that "public policy" choice-of-law analysis. Woodcock v. Mylan, Inc., 661 F. Supp.2d 602, 609 (S.D.W. Va. 2009) ("[b]ecause West Virginia has rejected the learned-intermediary doctrine on public-policy grounds and applying Alabama law to the marketing defect claim would violate that public policy, West Virginia law applies to that claim"); Vitatoe v. Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 696 F. Supp.2d 599, 610 (N.D.W. Va. 2010) ("it is impossible to apply the substantive law of Louisiana to [plaintiff's] inadequate warning claim without violating West Virginia public policy"; following "Woodcock's helpful public policy analysis"). For doing this, we trolled Woodcock with eighth place on our 2009 bottom ten decisions list:

This decision invoked "forum public policy" to apply West Virginia's rejection of the learned intermediary rule to a forum shopping plaintiff from Alabama – a staunch learned intermediary state. That can't be right. Practically all major tort law doctrines are grounded in a court's sense of "public policy." Thus the "forum public policy" exception (previously limited to legislatively set policy) becomes another constitutionally suspect means of applying forum law to cases with no significant ties to the state in question. Any other forum shopper can presumably make the same argument. We're sure we haven't seen the last of this. We blogged about Woodcock here.

Fortunately, the West Virginia legislature stepped in and did the right thing, making its own declaration of West Virginia public policy in 2011:

Choice of Law in Pharmaceutical Product Liability Actions.

It is public policy of this state that, in determining the law applicable to a product liability claim brought by a nonresident of this state against the manufacturer or distributor of a prescription drug for failure to warn, the duty to warn shall be governed solely by the product liability law of the place of injury ("lex loci delicti").

W. Va. Code §55-8-16(a). We cheered that development here.

Of course, the entire Karl learned intermediary brouhaha became moot (or so we thought) several years later when the legislature did themselves one better and directly overruled Karl on the merits. See W. Va. Code 55-7-30 (restoring the learned intermediary rule). Even more vigorously, we cheered on that development – after the fact, of course, since we made sure not to breathe a word about this before it was a done deal (we know the other side reads our blog, so there are some things we do keep quiet about).

Given this background, it is with no small degree of schadenfreude that we bring to you M.M. v. Pfizer, Inc., ___ S.E.2d ___, 2017 WL 5077106 (W. Va. Nov. 1, 2017). M.M. involved the West Virginia sojourn of other litigation tourists, this time from Michigan. Id. at *2. Michigan, as anyone involved in the defense of prescription medical product liability litigation knows, has a statute that provides the strongest FDA compliance defense in the country (although Texas is close):

In a product liability action against a manufacturer or seller, a product that is a drug is not defective or unreasonably dangerous, and the manufacturer or seller is not liable, if the drug was approved . . . by the [FDA], and the drug and its labeling were in compliance with the [FDA's] approval at the time the drug left the control of the manufacturer or seller. . . .

Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §600.2946(5). As we've mentioned before, that statute has produced a " diaspora" of Michigan plaintiffs all running away from the policy judgment made by the legislature of their chosen state of residence. Those prior plaintiffs didn't have much luck, and as it turns out, neither did this one.

This time, even if West Virginia courts might have been inclined to cut the Michigan plaintiffs a break, they ran headlong into the West Virginia choice-of-law statute mentioned above. Even though it was passed to overturn half-baked Karl-based "public policy" determinations, the statute's literal terms establish West Virginia choice of law "public policy" as to all prescription drug warning cases. Thus, the M.M. plaintiff – despite having nothing to do with Karl – was entirely out of luck. "Here, there is no dispute that the injuries alleged by [plaintiffs] all occurred in the State of Michigan. Thus, [the] failure to warn claim is governed by Michigan law, which forecloses such a claim if the drug was approved by the FDA and the manufacturer complied with the FDA's labeling requirements." 2017 WL 5077106, at *3 (also discussing why fraud-on-the-FDA exception to statute doesn't apply). Thus, "Michigan law forecloses [plaintiffs'] failure to warn claim." Id. Interestingly, the court added:

To recognize such a claim under West Virginia law where the same already is foreclosed in the same case by the law of another jurisdiction, however, would contradict the full faith and credit due our sister jurisdictions.

Id. (citations omitted). "Full faith and credit"? We confess we haven't seen that much, indeed ever, before in prescription medical product liability litigation, but anything that keeps a plaintiff from relitigating something they've already lost finds favor here.

Unfortunately for these plaintiffs, they were also entirely unable to come up with any defect claim that wasn't really a statutorily covered warning claim. "[B]oth the strict liability and negligence claims allege that [defendant] improperly failed to include . . . warnings on its labeling, which, again, constitute allegations that [defendant] failed to warn." Id. at *4. Even if West Virginia law could apply, the choice-of-law statute meant that West Virginia law kicked things back to Michigan, and was "foreclosed thereby." Id. Both their strict liability and negligence claims, although making boilerplate allegations, were "merely a restatement of [plaintiffs'] failure to warn claim," id. (strict liability), or "merely a reiteration of [plaintiffs'] failure to warn claim." Id. at *5 (negligence). Any way one looked at the case, plaintiffs alleged only a failure to warn, and failure to warn claims had to be determined by Michigan law, where plaintiffs lost.

[B]ecause [plaintiffs'] failure to warn claim is governed by Michigan law, and the governing Michigan statutes provide that a manufacturer cannot be held liable where it has complied with the FDA reporting, disclosure, and labeling requirements, there exists no duty that could have been breached so as to establish a claim for negligence.

Id. at *5.

Now that BMS has pulled the welcome mat away from litigation tourists, we don't expect much more of a Michigan diaspora, but even if there were, the West Virginia choice-of-law statute, enacted for an entirely different purpose, will preclude any of them from relying on more favorable West Virginia law. See Id. at *3 n.2 (noting that §55-8-16(a) has since been expanded so that it applies to "all liability claims at issue," not just warnings).

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

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