A federal court in Florida has granted a drug maker’s request to apply New Jersey law to the plaintiffs’ punitive damages demand in litigation alleging that the use of medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat bone metastasis caused the jaw osteonecrosis developed by the plaintiff wife. Dopson-Troutt v. Novartis Pharms. Corp., No. 06-1708 (U.S. Dist. Ct., M.D. Fla., Tampa Div., order entered July 22, 2013).

The court agreed with the defendant that while Pennsylvania law may apply to certain issues in the case because that is where the plaintiffs reside and the injury occurred, (i) the court should conduct a separate choice-of-law analysis for punitive damages, (ii) Florida choice-of-law principles would require the application of New Jersey law to punitive damages, and (iii) the plaintiffs may not seek punitive damages under New Jersey law.

The court applied a choice-of-law doctrine known as dépeçage, a principle that requires conflicts to be evaluated with respect to a particular issue in a case, and not to the case as a whole, finding that Florida, the forum state, recognizes the doctrine. In ruling that New Jersey law applied to the punitive damages issue, the court reasoned that the alleged misconduct to be punished by a punitive damage award involved the New Jersey-based company’s decisions as to labeling, packaging and warnings, all of which occurred in New Jersey, giving the state a more significant relationship to the matter.

New Jersey law provides immunity to drug companies from punitive damages in product liability cases where FDA has approved the drug, although an exception allows recovery if the plaintiff can show that the drug company “knowingly withheld or misrepresented information required to be submitted under [FDA] regulations.” The court determined that the exception was preempted under federal law because it would conflict with the agency’s “responsibility to police fraud consistently with the Administration’s judgment and objectives.”