Products Liability: Celebrity Edition

In a post reminiscent of Us Weekly‘s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” section, which offers photographs of celebrities doing inane things that “everyday people do,” (beautiful, famous people have to pump their own gas, too!), we’ll take a quick look at some of the many recent instances where celebrities have made headlines for products liability-themed events.

Right here in South Carolina in 2008, celebrities DJ AM and Blink 182′s Travis Barker were among six people aboard a Learjet that crashed during takeoff in Columbia. The four others on board were killed. Both Barker and DJ AM subsequently filed suit against the airline and the maker of the tires used on the aircraft, alleging that both were defective. One year later, in a very celebrity-like turn of events, DJ AM died from a drug overdose, whereupon his mother took over his $20 million lawsuit and amended it to include a wrongful death claim. She alleged that the crash ultimately led to DJ AM’s drug overdose and death. Both of those suits reportedly settled for undisclosed amounts.

In 2007, actor Dennis Quaid and his wife took their newborn twins for treatment of a staph infection at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where they were administered 1,000 times the prescribed dose of blood-thinning drug heparin. The twins eventually recovered, and Quaid subsequently filed suit against Baxter Healthcare Corporation, maker of the drug, alleging that the company did not sufficiently differentiate its packaging. Quaid’s children were supposed to receive a 10-unit dose of a diluted version of heparin, but instead mistakenly received 10,000 units of the undiluted drug. The lawsuit set forth that the bottles shared similar labels and a common shape. The couple’s suit was not about money, they said, but was an attempt to ensure no other parents endured the same experience.

Finally, as we previously reported here, Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical Industries recently announced it would stop production of its widely used sedative propofol, after two headline-grabbing events issued blows to both its image and its financial well being. One of those events that garnered the most attention of the press was the death of Michael Jackson. The drug became infamous after the superstar died from an overdose of the sedative, in combination with other sedatives, which were administered by Jackson’s personal physician. As previously reported, although no product liability suit has yet arisen, Jackson’s devoted fans followed the Teva announcement closely in fanpages devoted to the star.

In the products liability arena, celebrities are, it seems, just like us. Except, perhaps, for accidental drug overdoses administered by a live-in, personal physician.

Name-Brand Drug Formulator Not Liable For Generic Formulation

Chief District Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr. of the Western District of North Carolina recently held that the manufacturer of a name-brand formulation of a drug is not liable for injuries that a plaintiff alleged suffered as a result of taking the generic version of the drug. Couick v. Wyeth, Inc., No. 3:09-cv-210, 2010 WL 785952 (W.D.N.C. Mar. 8, 2010). The Court granted the name-brand defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

From July 2002 to April 2007, Plaintiff Mary Cleo Couick took generic metoclopramide pills for treatment of gastroesophasgeal reflux. Reglan, the name-brand version of the drug, was manufactured by Wyeth, Inc. and Schwarz Pharma, Inc. Couick stipulated that she only took the generic version of this drug. However, Couick filed suit against both the name-brand manufacturers and generic manufacturers claiming that they failed to adequately warn her doctors about the risks associated with metoclopradmide, which caused her to develop tardive dyskinesia.

Against name-brand manufacturers, Couick brought claims for negligence, breach of undertaking special duty, misrepresentation by omission, negligent misrepresentation, constructive fraud, fraud by concealment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, unfair and deceptive trade practices, breach of express warranty, and breach of implied warranties. In response, name-brand manufacturers filed a motion for summary judgment.

The Court first found that since “[e]ach of [Couick's] claims [are] based on the premise that Wyeth and Schwarz are liable for Couick’s physical condition because they failed to adequately warn Couick’s doctors about the dangers of metoclopramide,” Couick’s claims, while masked in various legal theories, were a single claim for products liability.

The Court then held that under clear North Carolina and Fourth Circuit authority, a “name-brand manufacturer’s statements regarding its drug [cannot] serve as the basis for liability for injuries caused by another manufacturer’s drug.” As a result, the Court granted name-brand manufacturers’ motion for summary judgment.

This case is instructive to products liability practitioners in two main respects. First, despite a plaintiff’s artful pleading, claims based upon personal injury or property damage as a result of the manufacture, construction, design, selling, advertising, etc. of the product, is generally considered only one claim under a state’s products liability law. Second, the rule that a name-brand manufacturer is not liable for injuries caused by another manufacturer remains intact. See Foster v. Am. Home Products Corp., 29 F.3d 165 (4th Cir. 1994). Recently, we have reported on a number of cases here against drug manufacturers. This re-affirmed rule will become particularly important as these types of suits increase.