We recently read a news story about a man who was imprisoned for 39 years for a crime he did not commit. The crime was grisly and resulted in the violent deaths of a 24-year-old woman and a small child, leaving a community outraged and law enforcement officials determined to hold someone responsible. So, burdens of proof be damned, the defendant was convicted despite the fact that relevant DNA recovered from the victims was not his. Eventually, a crusading retired policeman succeeded in winning exoneration and freedom for the prisoner. Now, we went to law school. We know all about the differences between criminal law and civil law. And we know we should be circumspect about fragile visceral analogies when we are well aware of the relevant distinctions. Nevertheless, when we read a bad “innovator liability” decision – a decision holding an innovator drug manufacturer liable for injuries caused by a generic version of the drug – a drug manufactured by someone else – there is a simplistic part of us that fails to see how this is so different from imprisoning someone for a crime he did not commit

Today’s case, Garner v. Johnson & Johnson, et al., 2017 WL 6945335 (C.D. Ill. Sept. 06, 2017) (just surfacing though several months old), is just such a bad decision. In Garner, the plaintiff alleged that a generic fluoroquinilone antibiotic caused her to suffer serious injuries. She sued the generic drug manufacturer that actually made her drug along with the innovator drug company that manufactured the name-brand version of the drug. The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

The court first considered the plaintiff’s claims against the generic drug manufacturer, and correctly concluded that, under Mensing, the claims, all rooted in alleged inadequacies of the generic drug’s warning label, were preempted. But the court wanted to hold someone responsible. So, noting that the Seventh Circuit had not yet addressed innovator liability, it undertook to circumvent Illinois law.

As we discussed in our “Innovator Liability at 100” post, Illinois has long required product identification for all product liability matters, as evinced by the Illinois Supreme Court’s rejection of industry-wide liability under both market share liability and public nuisance rubrics. See Young v. Bryco Arms, 821 N.E.2d 1078, 1087-91 (2004) (public nuisance); Smith v. Eli Lilly & Co., 560 N.E.2d 324, 337-39, 344-45 (Ill. 1990) (market share liability); City of Chicago v. American Cyanamid Co., 823 N.E.2d 126, 134-35 (Ill. App. 2005) (market share liability in public nuisance); Lewis v. Lead Industries Ass’n. Inc., 793 N.E.2d 869, 874-76 (2003) (same) (all four cases finding no causation as a matter of law without product identification). See also Leng v. Celotex Corp., 554 N.E.2d 468, 470-471 (Ill. App. 1990) (rejecting market share liability pre-Smith in asbestos case); York v. Lunkes, 545 N.E.2d 478, 480 (Ill. App. 1989) (rejecting market share liability pre-Smith in battery case); Poole v. Alpha Therapeutic Corp., 696 F. Supp. 351, 353 (N.D. Ill. 1988) (rejecting market share liability pre-Smith in blood products case); Coerper v. Dayton-Walther, 1986 WL 4111, at *1 (N.D. Ill. March 27, 1986) (rejecting market share liability pre-Smith in tire rim case).

Moreover, Illinois does not recognize a duty to warn about the risks of a competing product:

[Defendant] is under no duty to provide information on other products in the marketplace. Such a duty would require drug manufacturers to rely upon the representations made by competitor drug companies. This arrangement would only lead to greater liability on behalf of drug manufacturers that were required to vouch for the efficacy of a competitor’s product.

Pluto v. Searle Laboratories, 690 N.E.2d 619, 621 (Ill. App. 1997). Recently, an Illinois appellate court recognized in dictum that an “overwhelming majority of courts have held that generic consumers may not sue the brand-name manufacturer.” Guvenoz v. Target Corp., 30 N.E.3d 404, 409 n.1 (Ill. App. 2015). See id. at 416 (plaintiffs “cannot obtain relief from brand-name drug manufacturers whose products they did not ingest”).

But the Garner court disregarded all of this. The court acknowledged that, to state a claim for negligence, the plaintiff was required to establish that the defendants owed her a duty of care, and that the existence of such a duty turned on the reasonable foreseeability of the injury. But it held, “In the well-regulated pharmaceutical industry, . . . a brand-name manufacturer . . . is surely not blindsided to find out that the equivalent of its . . . [label] as imposed on generic versions of [its drug],” and that doctors and patients would rely on that label when prescribing and using the generic drug. Garner, 2017 WL 6945335 at *7. Further, the court held, it was “a common practice, and therefore foreseeable, for a doctor to prescribe a name brand drug and the pharmacy to fill it with the generic version.” Id. And so, though “other courts have expressed trepidation about the consequences of holding brand-name manufacturers liable for injury caused by generics,” id. (citations omitted), the court concluded that finding that the brand-name manufacturer had a duty of care to a plaintiff taking someone else’s drug “simply allows [the plaintiff] to attempt to recover from the one entity, under federal law, that has the unilateral ability to strengthen the label.” Id. Even though that entity did not manufacture the product that allegedly injured her.

The court next addressed the issue of causation, acknowledging that “liability for negligence may not be imposed based merely on a breach of duty, without causation being established. Id. (citation omitted). The plaintiff alleged that she would not have taken the generic drug if its label contained adequate warnings. (Although the generic drug was a prescription drug, the court failed to analyze warnings causation from the perspective of the prescribing physician.) And the court held that “an extra link in the causal chain (here, the transfer of the identical label from the branded drug to the generic drug) does not break it. It is possible for a plaintiff to show that injuries caused by mislabeling on a generic medication can be directly traced back to the brand name manufacturer’s creation of the label.” Id. (citations omitted). As such, the court found that the plaintiff had “adequately alleged causation,” id., and, in derogation of its Erie duty to apply Illinois law, denied the innovator company’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s negligence claims. Similar analysis allowed the plaintiff’s related claims to proceed.

We get the issue. We understand that the United States Supreme Court has limited the remedies of plaintiffs injured by generic drugs, even assuming they can prove a product defect, an injury, and causation in between. But “someone’s gotta pay” cannot justify a decision that starts from a desired result and works backward, hurdling any doctrine or jurisprudence that gets in the way. We defend innovator drug companies for a living, and we will continue to speak out against decisions like Garner. And we’ll keep you posted on what comes next.