United States: Unavoidably Unsafe PMA Medical Devices

Last Updated: November 30 2017
Article by James Beck

When it comes to design defect claims and FDA pre-market approved ("PMA") medical devices, "preemption" is our reflexive reaction. That's entirely reasonable, given the many decisions that preempt state-law design-related claims since Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312 (2008). We collect then all here.

Nevertheless, there are some judges, particularly (but not all) in state court, who react negatively to the very concept of preemption. Thus, a word to the wise is not to put all your dismissal eggs in one basket. One logical alternative argument starts with the same premise as preemption – that "the FDA requires a device that has received premarket approval to be made with almost no deviations from the specifications in its approval application." Riegel, 552 U.S. at 323.

The "almost no deviations" limitation, of course applies to device design. E.g., Walker v. Medtronic, Inc., 670 F.3d 569, 580 (4th Cir. 2012); Blunt v. Medtronic, Inc., 760 N.W.2d 396, 409 (Wis. 2009); McLaughlin v. Bayer Corp., 172 F. Supp. 3d 804, 810 (E.D. Pa. 2016); Kitchen v. Biomet, Inc., 2014 WL 694226, at *3 (E.D. Ky. Feb. 21, 2014); Miller v. DePuy Spine, Inc., 638 F. Supp. 2d 1226, 1229 (D. Nev. 2009).

Which brings us to Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, comment k (1965), "which insulates from liability manufacturers of unavoidably unsafe products that are properly prepared and accompanied by an adequate warning." Rodriguez v. Stryker Corp., 680 F.3d 568, 575 (6th Cir. 2012) (applying Tennessee law). Putting aside the separate (albeit important) issue whether comment k applies to prescription medical products generally or only on a case-by-case basis, courts on both sides of that question equate "unavoidably unsafe" with the absence of an alternative design:

[N]umerous state and federal courts ha[ve] interpreted comment k to mean that a product is "unavoidably unsafe" when, given proper manufacture and labeling, no feasible alternative design would reduce the safety risks without compromising the product's cost and utility.

Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 562 U.S. 223, 256 (2011) (Breyer, J. concurring) (footnote containing string citation omitted) (emphasis added). In other words, "a defendant seeking to invoke the [comment k] defense must first show that the product is highly useful and that the danger imposed by the product could not have been avoided through a feasible alternative design." Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S. Ct. 2466, 2487 (2013) (applying New Hampshire law). To avoid a claim of "unavoidable risk, there must be, at the time of the subject product's distribution, no feasible alternative design which on balance accomplishes the subject product's purpose with a lesser risk." Toner v. Lederle Laboratories, 732 P.2d 297, 306 (Idaho 1987). "The purpose of comment k is to protect from strict liability products that cannot be designed more safely." Grundberg v. Upjohn Co., 813 P.2d 89, 92 (Utah 1991). Grundberg and Toner don't agree on much when it comes to comment k, but they agree on the importance of alternative design.

Thus, that a PMA-approved device must be made with "almost no deviations" from its specified design means (in addition to preemption) that there is no legal alternative design that would allow the plaintiff to avoid a manufacturer's comment k defense. To use a non-approved alternative design would be illegal – and illegal designs cannot serve as "feasible" alternative designs. See Lewis v. American Cyanamid Co., 715 A.2d 967, 981 (N.J. 1998} ("plaintiff may not succeed on an alternative design theory that would have required the defendant manufacturer to violate the law"); White v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 533 N.E.2d 748, 753-54 (Ohio 1988) (alternative design not feasible where "it was not possible for [defendant] to have legally marketed a [product] design using [the alternative design] at the time [plaintiff] was inoculated"); Ackley v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 919 F.2d 397, 401 (6th Cir. 1990) (following White; alternative designs did not "exist[]" where it was "indisputable" that "[w]ithout an FDA license to produce another design, [defendant] was legally prohibited from distributing" those designs) (applying Ohio law); Wolfe v. McNeil-PPC, Inc., 773 F. Supp.2d 561, 572 (E.D. Pa. 2011) (when "[t]here exists no FDA-approved alternative form of [the product]," "there is no available alternative design"); Militrano v. Lederle Laboratories, 769 N.Y.S.2d 839, 847-48 (N.Y. Sup. 2003) (where plaintiff proposed a non-FDA-approved alternative, defendant "could not have marketed a reasonable alternative"), aff'd, 810 N.Y.S.2d 506 (N.Y.A.D. 2006); In re Alloderm Litigation, 2015 WL 5022618, at *12 (N.J. Super. Law Div. Aug. 14, 2015 (no feasible alternative where design plaintiff advocated "was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration until" after plaintiffs' surgeries); Totterdale v. Lederle Laboratories, 2008 WL 972657 (W.Va. Cir. Mar. 19, 2008) (where FDA approval not until after plaintiff's injury plaintiff did "not provide[] any new material facts to raise a genuine issue as to whether [the product] was avoidably unsafe").

Thus, in Gross v. Stryker Corp., 858 F. Supp.2d 466 (W.D. Pa. 2012), comment k applied to "a Class III medical device which received FDA approval pursuant to the PMA process." Id. at 481 (footnote omitted).

Moreover, the inherently rigorous nature of the premarket approval process and the contraindications, warnings, and precautions described in the [device's] Summary of Safety and Security Data all suggest that [it] is an "unavoidably unsafe" product to which strict liability does not apply.

Id. at 482. "As a result, the [device] can be considered a prescription medical device that falls within the scope of comment k to § 402A." Id.

Similarly, the court employed the non-preemption path of comment k in Aaron v. Medtronic, Inc., 209 F. Supp.3d 994 (S.D. Ohio 2016). While Ohio (at the relevant time, this has now changed, Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §2307.75(D)) was a case-by-case comment k state, the PMA approved nature of the device, and the constraints the FDA's approval placed on alternative designs, meant that comment k had to apply:

Defendant argues . . . that [the device's] classification by the FDA as a Class III medical device inherently means that it is unavoidably unsafe and that Comment K's prohibition of strict liability claims therefore applies. Defendant's argument is well taken. Class III devices . . . are, as relevant here, defined as devices that are "for a use which is of substantial importance in preventing impairment of human health, or...present[] a potential unreasonable risk of illness or injury." 21 U.S.C. §360c(a)(1)(C)(ii). . . .

[T]here is no alternative design for [the device] that could lawfully be marketed. "Once a device has received premarket approval, the MDA forbids the manufacturer to make, without FDA permission, changes in design specifications...that would affect safety or effectiveness." There is therefore no basis for an in-depth evidentiary inquiry into alternative designs.

Aaron, 209 F. Supp.3d at 1013-14 (quoting Riegel, 552 U.S. at 319) (other citations omitted).

So while preemption should do the trick with design defect claims involving PMA approved medical devices, courts may sometimes have an easier time with alternative, non-constitutional arguments such as the lack of any legal alternative design under Restatement §402A, comment k. Consider giving judges this other way to the end result that we all want – dismissal of design defect claims.

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

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