“Johnson & Johnson Hit With Another Trial Verdict Reversal”
By Mark York (November 17, 2017)
Mass Tort Nexus
(MASS TORT NEXUS) The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed the single defense verdict reached in favor of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of anti-psychotic drug Risperdal. The reversal and order for a new trial stemmed from a 2015 trial that resulted in the one Risperdal defense verdict to date. The case is part of the mass tort docket for Risperdal cases in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, (see RISPERDAL Case No 296 PHILADELPHIA COURT OF COMMON PLEAS BRIEFCASE), where more than 6,000 Risperdal cases are pending.
The 22-page unanimous Superior Court decision by Judge Jack Panella, reversed the Janssen defense win in the Risperdal trial where plaintiff William Cirba filed suit against Janssen Pharmaceuticals and lost, as well the subsequent denial of Mr. Cirba’s request for a retrial based on “erroneous evidentiary rulings.”
The ruling ordered a new trial and will now be limited to the issues of causation and damages.
LAYPERSON AT TRIAL IS NOT AN EXPERT
The Superior Court stated the trial court made a reversible error at trial, by allowing physician’s assistant Michelle Baker’s testimony to be weighed on the same level as that of a medical expert. Ms. Baker was involved in the treatment of Mr. Cirba from 2005 to 2013, as a physician’s assistant.
During the Cirba trial, a videotaped deposition from Baker was played in which she stated an opinion that Cirba’s gynecomastia (the development of breast tissue) was the result of “extreme weight gain” rather than negative side effects from Risperdal. Cirba had been prescribed the drug to treat oppositional defiant disorder.
Cirba’s counsel objected that it was improper that Baker’s layperson testimony was considered equal to that of an expert, since she was not designated or qualified prior to trial – while the defense believed Baker’s deposition did not cross over into expert testimony and “constituted permissible lay opinion testimony, as it was rationally based on her perception of plaintiff during treatment.” Which the Superior Court has obviously disagreed with.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Janssen in March 2015, although the jury at that time believed Janssen failed to properly warn Cirba’s physicians of gynecomastia risks associated with Risperdal, it stopped short of finding Janssen negligent in directly causing Cirba’s gynecomastia.
The Superior Court sided with the plaintiff in believing admitting Baker’s testimony was an attempt to enter the realm of expert knowledge.
“Defendants’ experts opined that weight gain rather than Risperdal ingestion caused plaintiff to appear to have gynecomastia. Baker’s testimony, in which she opined that plaintiff’s weight gain, rather than his Risperdal usage, caused him to appear to have gynecomastia, was causation testimony offered by a witness who personally treated the plaintiff” Panella said.
Panella added Baker’s opinion was “offered without the proper vetting and safeguards surrounding expert testimony.”
“Further, this opinion was introduced into evidence due to the trial court’s improper application of the law, which is clearly an abuse of discretion. Therefore, we find that the trial court abused its discretion in denying plaintiff’s request for a new trial, limited to the issues of causation and damages,” the panel stated, in reversing the judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings.
SAME PANEL STRIKES RISPERDAL SOL CLAIMS
In a separate 18-page ruling also issued Nov. 13, the exact same three-judge panel upheld the trial court’s striking down of arguments that the statute of limitations in two Risperdal cases, featuring plaintiffs Jonathan Saksek and Joshua Winter, should have been tolled until 2013.
Saksek and Winter were prescribed Risperdal in 1997 and 1998, allegedly began developing gynecomastia in 1998 and 2002, respectively, but didn’t file suit until 2014. Both plaintiffs brought suit after seeing television advertising connected to Risperdal litigation in 2013.
The defense agreed with the trial court that the statute of limitations mandated the grant of summary judgment, but contended if the discovery rule applied, it would have only tolled the statute of limitations until October 2006, when Risperdal’s prescribing label was changed to include a warning about gynecomastia.
In January 2015, Judge Arnold New granted a defense motion for summary judgment and ruled an applicable statute of limitations applied to both Saksek and Winter’s cases, feeling that they should have known of Risperdal’s gynecomastia-related injury risks by June 30, 2009.
Both plaintiffs appealed, and the appeals were consolidated, but the higher court agreed with the trial court.
“Plaintiffs were aware of their injuries when they began experiencing unexplained weight gain – and breast growth – after starting Risperdal treatment in 1998 and 2002. However, from 1998 and 2002 until 2013, when plaintiffs were notified of the commercial claiming a link between gynecomastia and Risperdal, they did nothing to uncover the cause of their unexplained breast growth and weight gain. Plaintiff cannot hope to establish that they acted with reasonable diligence, when they admit that they failed to act at all,” Panella stated.
“Their breasts were there, and had been there, for years. And then, in October 2006, the label on Risperdal changed, expressly linking usage of the drug to gynecomastia. Their breasts were clearly not temporary by 2006. Accordingly, by that date, ‘reasonable minds would not differ in finding that’ plaintiffs knew, or should have known, of their injuries and the cause of those injuries by this point,” Panella added.
RULING AFFECTS OTHER CASES
Kline commented on the Superior Court’s statute of limitations ruling, indicating it could be far-reaching beyond merely the instant cases.
“We believe [this] harsh ruling, which may bar the claims of thousands of claimants who could not possibly have known of their gynecomastia injury and its cause, is legally and factually wrong. We plan to appeal further, seeking to reopen the courthouse doors to them,” Kline said.
Janssen’s stated: “We are pleased the Superior Court affirmed Judge New’s ruling on the application of statute of limitations.
MASS TORT DOCKET GROWING
More than 6,400 Risperdal lawsuits – most from out-of-state plaintiffs – will be handled in Philadelphia’s Complex Litigation Center. The CLC has several mass tort programs, including cases over Xarelto (See Case No. 2349 in Philadephia Court of Common Pleas – Complex Litigation PA State Court) and asbestos, and the percentage of claims belonging to out-of-state plaintiffs has traditionally been in the high 80s. In 2016, the percentage for pharmaceutical lawsuits dropped to 74 percent.
However, in 2017, the most recent CLC stats show that figure has jumped to an unprecedented 94 percent.
Appeal Docket: Superior Court of Pennsylvania case 2451 EDA 2015 & 576 EDA 2015
Trial Docket: Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas case 130301803, 140200183 & 140301170