When we first looked at the decision for today’s post, we thought about comparing it to fan fiction. If you aren’t familiar with the term it is fiction stories written about characters from an original work of fiction created by fans of the original work as opposed to its creator. Pretty straightforward in concept. But while fan fiction has become more mainstream in recent years (one of the most popular fan fiction websites has almost 600,000 entries under the Harry Potter category alone), it still has a fairly bad reputation as the dark side of geek fandom. And let’s face it, the bulk of the people writing fan fiction aren’t going to be the next J.K. Rowling. And, fan fiction is at its core a product of fandom. So, you have to be fairly well-versed in the original to even think about understanding its offspring. That said, fan fiction having found a home on the internet has led to the development of communities that rally around the original work and discuss and debate everything from literary theory to pop culture.
But upon further reflection, we think the court’s decision in Proffitt v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111895 (S.D.W.Va. Jul. 5, 2018), is more like a reimagining of an old classic. There are many lists of books based on other books. Some authors create sequels or prequels to old classics. Possibly delving into storylines that were only marginally touched in the original. Those might be classified as published fan fiction – and some of it quite good. Wicked, for instance, long before it was a hit Broadway musical, was a Wizard of Oz spinoff about the life of the Wicked Witch of the West written by Gregory Maguire. But there are books that are re-tellings of original masterpieces designed to give the reader a more modern or updated take. For example, if you’ve read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and you haven’t read Shakespeare’s King Lear, you should. Shakespeare’s king has to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and only realizes too late which one is the worthiest. Smiley updated the story to a farm in Iowa and overall paints a kinder picture of the sisters but the parallel cannot be denied. Or, what about Bridget Jones’ Diary and Pride and Prejudice. Bridget and Elizabeth Bennett certainly have plenty in common, but Helen Fielding really stayed close to Jane Austen’s classic when she wrote Mark Darcy who is unquestionably Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 20th century.
So what’s the upshot of all of this, other than perhaps to inspire a summer reading list? Sometimes a story is so good it’s worth telling again, just updated. That’s essentially what the court did in Proffitt. The slip opinion is 12 pages long and almost 5 full pages are block quotes. We don’t mean that to be a negative thing. The court found it needed to say little new because the important stuff was already written.
Plaintiff sued the manufacturer of an antipsychotic drug he took alleging it caused him to develop tardive dyskinesia (limb twitching, facial tics, jaw clenching, etc.). Id. at *1. Plaintiff brought claims for negligent and strict liability failure to warn and breach of implied warranty of merchantability based on a failure to provide a reasonable warning. Id. at *2. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that plaintiff’s claims were insufficiently pleaded. That’s chapter 1 – the background.
In Chapter 2 – the standard of review – the court recounts what has fondly become known on this blog as TwIqbal. Here, the court didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Fourth Circuit had already summed it up quite nicely in Nemet Chevrolet, LTD v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250 (4th Cir. 2009). The complaint needs enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Proffitt, at *3-4.
Moving into Chapter 3 – the analysis – the court found two more significant texts on which to rely. Remember, all of plaintiff’s claims are based on alleged failure to warn about tardive dyskinesia. But the drug’s label always contained a warning about that very condition. While plaintiff failed to even allude to the warning in his complaint, the court quoted all 5 paragraphs about tardive dyskinesia. Id. at *6-8. Which led the court to observe that plaintiff’s complaint neither alleges how that warning was inadequate or what an appropriate warning would look like. Id. at *8.
And here is where Proffitt really becomes a re-telling of Reed v. Pfizer, Inc., 839 F. Supp.2d 571, 575-77 (E.D.N.Y 2012). Because Reed had already done all the work. It explains exactly why given facts like Proffitt, a failure to warn claim can’t survive a TwIqbal challenge. The Reeds, like the Proffitts¸ failed to identify how the warning given by the defendant about the very risk at issue was inadequate. In both Reed and the more recent version, Proffitt, plaintiffs failed to allege any facts to suggest that the warnings in both cases were insufficient, erroneous, or contained misrepresentations. See generally Proffitt, at *8-12. Sometimes there is simply no improving on the original:
To cut to the chase, the fact (taken here as true) that [Reed/Proffitt] suffered from certain conditions that were also identified risks of ingesting [the drug] is tragic, but cannot alone make plausible a claim that defendants misrepresented or hid those risks in some way. Plaintiffs have alleged factual content sufficient only to make plausible that [Reed/Proffitt] ingested [the drug] and thereafter suffered serious harm. If such allegations were sufficient to state a failure to warn claim, then anyone experiencing harm after using a product where the harm is a warned-of risk could successfully plead a claim. Perversely, the pleaded fact that a warning was given would be the only pleaded fact supporting the claim that a lawfully adequate warning was not given. To allow such a naked claim to go forward would merely green light for plaintiffs an expedition designed to fish for an in terrorem increment of the settlement value, rather than a reasonably founded hope that the discovery process will reveal relevant evidence.
Id. at *11-12 (quoting Reed, other citations omitted).
Reed had also already done a good job of collecting many supporting cases but the Proffitt court updated the citations as well. Id. at *12-14.
And so the decision concludes by acknowledging the great work of the prior courts to have dealt with the issue and dismissing plaintiff’s claims as inadequately pleaded. Once again TwIqbal triumphs over a factually barren complaint.