United States: Court Puts Stake In Heart Of Hip Implant Negligence Claim vs. Distributor; Plaintiff's Summary Judgment Motion Doesn't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance

Last Updated: November 6 2018
Article by Stephen J. McConnell

Happy Halloween. We are very old school when it comes to this spooky holiday. Our pumpkins are orange, our candy bowl is full of Kit Kats, and our favorite horror movies are black and white Universal monster movies from the 1930's and 40's. To our ears, nothing screams Halloween quite like the great Una O'Connor screaming. See and listen here for examples of her wonderful performances in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein as a proper lady properly terrorized by creepy creatures. (O'Connor's last film role was in Witness for the Prosecution as an ear-witness who resisted impeachment.) The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and the original Frankenstein movie were all directed by James Whale, a man of enormous talents and humor, as well as enormous tortures. The Gods and Monsters film portrays Whale in his uneasy later days.

At this point, we cannot resist a Halloween joke, this one by Dana Gould. It goes like this: In this country we celebrate a holiday where frightening strangers come to our homes and take goodies from us. We call it Halloween. A month later, the next big holiday arrives – Thanksgiving. But Native Americans have another name for that holiday; they call it ... Halloween.

Recently, we found ourselves screaming like Una O'Connor after a plaintiff filed a summary judgment motion against us. That plaintiff had the temerity to argue that her failure to warn claim was a foregone conclusion. Our screams arose from surprise, indignation, and, finally, laughter. With one brain tied behind our back, we could scare up a genuine factual dispute. Take a look at the report by our expert, who is very smart and says our warning was adequate and no reasonable doctor would have been misled. While you're at it, read our Daubert motion, wherein we demonstrate that the plaintiff experts are about as scientific as Colin Clive in Frankenstein, dancing under the lightning and proclaiming, "It's alive, alive!" Not quite. Our expert marshals the data and literature and says this about the lawsuit: "It's dead, dead!"

Plaintiff motions for summary judgment are menacing, but miss the mark more often than not. That was certainly true in Nielsen v. Smith & Nephew Inc. et al., 2018 WL 5282901 (E.D. Wisc. Oct. 24, 2018). If anyone is screaming in this case, it is the judge, obviously pained by bad briefing. The plaintiff alleged that a hip replacement device fractured ten years after it had been implanted. The complaint's main target was the distributor of the implants, because the manufacturer had gone under. There were 11 causes of action, but a defense summary judgment motion prompted the plaintiff to concede that almost all were pure hooey. Not a great start for the plaintiff. The only real motion fight was on the negligence claim against the distributor. Meanwhile, the plaintiff moved for summary judgment against the distributor on two grounds: (1) that the distributor of the hip devices could be liable under Wisconsin law because the manufacturer had gone bankrupt and lacked insurance coverage, and (2) the device lacked adequate warnings.

To put it mildly, the Nielsen judge was not impressed by the plaintiff's motion. The plaintiff supported his motion by attaching letters and emails from the manufacturer's counsel and insurer. That's all inadmissible hearsay. Consequently, the solvency of the manufacturer — and, therefore, whether the distributor could be a proper defendant — would need to be decided at trial, not on summary judgment. The plaintiff's summary judgment on product warnings fared no better. The plaintiff's expert did, predictably, say the warnings should have been more explicit and petrifying. But just as predictably, the defense expert pronounced the warnings to be just peachy. We in the business call this sort of thing a factual dispute. That's also what the court called it. It was not a close call, as far the court was concerned. The plaintiff "inexplicably declined to dispute any of [the distributor defendant's] statements of additional facts." Moreover, the plaintiff offered no relevant case law under Wisconsin's product liability act. Rather, the plaintiff "seems content to leave it to the Court to find the law that supports his arguments. It will not do so." Ouch.

The distributor defendant's motion for summary judgment was more successful than the plaintiff's motion. (Frankly, it is unimaginable how it could be less successful.) The plaintiff's motion was premised on his expert's opinion about what the warnings should have included. But the issue was the warning obligation of a "reasonable distributor." Amazingly, the plaintiff's expert addressed only manufacturer duties. Those duties were plainly inapplicable to the distributor defendant, which was "simply a middle man." The complete failure of the plaintiff to join issue mightily annoyed the judge, who wrote as follows: "Such minimal effort, devoid of any citation to law or meaningful discussion of evidence, is an insult to the Court." Double ouch. The plaintiff basically brought motions and then made no attempt to prove what he had to prove.

The distributor defendant did not cross-move on every claim. There is still a strict liability claim against it, and that claim will go to trial in November. But based on what happened with the cross motions for summary judgment, if we were the Nielsen plaintiff we would not be sanguine. Nope. We'd be scared.

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

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