This post is from the non-Dechert side of the blog.

While the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court Risperdal decision is not a defense victory, it is certainly not as favorable for plaintiffs as they are making it out to be. While several issues were presented for appeal in Stange v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., 2018 Pa. Super. LEXIS 11 (Pa. Super. Jan. 8, 2018), the most important one was whether the trial court was incorrect in applying New Jersey law to plaintiff’s punitive damages claim. While plaintiffs are characterizing the decision as answering that question in the affirmative, what the court really said was maybe.

In the consolidated In re Risperdal litigation pending in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the coordinating judge granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on punitive damages finding that the law of New Jersey, defendant’s principal place of business, applied and that under the New Jersey Product Liability Act, punitive damages are precluded in cases involving FDA approved products. Id. at *32-33. In opposition to defendants’ motion, plaintiffs argued the law of the case doctrine or in the alternative that the court should apply Pennsylvania law instead. Id. Their law of the case argument was based on the judge’s decision in three prior Risperdal cases to apply the punitive damages law of plaintiff’s home state. Id. at *35n.6. The trial court ruled that those cases were separate cases and therefore law of the case did not apply or if they were considered the same case as In re Risperdal, the same judge made all four rulings and a judge is entitled to revisit his earlier rulings “without running afoul of the law of the case doctrine.” Id. (citation omitted).

With that ruling in place, the Stange case went to trial with no punitive damage claim. Stange is a resident of Wisconsin which is where he was prescribed Risperdal and treated for his alleged injury, gynecomastia. Unlike New Jersey, Wisconsin does not have a bar on punitive damages for FDA approved products. Under Wisconsin law, however, punitives would be capped at twice the amount of any compensatory damages or $200,000, whichever is greater. Id. at *42. So, there is a clear conflict of law.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the trial court’s global ruling on punitive damages was improper because Pennsylvania law on choice of law requires an analysis of which state has the greatest relationship and interests in each individual plaintiff’s case and that that analysis supports applying plaintiff’s home state’s punitive damages law. Id. at *33. Plaintiffs did not argue for application of Pennsylvania punitive damages law on appeal. Id. at *43n.8. Defendants argued that plaintiffs’ choice of law argument had been waived because it was first raised in plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration of the global punitive damages ruling. Id. at *37. The Superior Court, however, found plaintiffs’ arguments preserved. In the context of their law of the case doctrine argument which urged the court to follow its earlier decision to apply plaintiff’s home state law, plaintiffs “argued more generally that the law of the plaintiffs’ various home states should apply to punitive damages.” Id. at *39.

So, what the Superior Court concluded was that the choice of law analysis was not waived and that a choice of law analysis as between New Jersey and Wisconsin needed to be undertaken:

the trial court only considered whether New Jersey or Pennsylvania law should apply, not the law of the individual plaintiff’s home state. We agree with Stange that it is necessary to remand for the trial court to allow Stange to develop an individual record on choice-of-law as it relates to his unique circumstances and to set out the facts and state interests important to his particular case.

Id. at *45. Nowhere in the decision does the court make any finding with regard to what the outcome of the choice of law analysis should be on remand, only that the analysis needs to be done. There is nothing prohibiting the trial court from reaching the conclusion in Stange that it did in In re Risperdal globally – that New Jersey has the more significant relationship and interests on the punitive damages claim. Indeed, having reached that decision once already we struggle to understand how the facts of any particular case will impact the court’s analysis. For the underlying substantive claims, most choice of law analyses will favor plaintiff’s home state – where he was prescribed, where he suffered his injury, where he was treated. But the alleged corporate misconduct giving rise to the claims for punitive damages occurred in New Jersey. It is there that the company developed the Risperdal labeling and its marketing and sales strategy and from there that it had communications with the FDA. Id. at *44. So, even on a case-by-case basis, there is ample support for a finding that in a failure to warn case, the proper focus for purposes of a choice of law analysis on punitive damages is the place where the alleged corporate misconduct occurred.

So we think plaintiffs are celebrating a bit prematurely. The Stange decision may have removed the foil and even loosened the wire cage, but the cork remains in place.

As we noted at the outset, punitive damages choice of law was not the only issue on appeal and so we make passing mention of two other noteworthy aspects of the case. First, defendants challenged the trial court’s admission of certain expert testimony on the grounds it did not meet Frye standards. Id. at *8-9. The Stange, court however erroneously applied the novelty limitation from Trach v. Fellin, 817 A.2d 1102 (Pa. Super. 2003) – that Frye only applies to the most “novel” of scientific testimony. That narrow interpretation was rejected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Betz v. Pneumo Abex LLC, 44 A.3d 27 (Pa. 2012), a case not cited in Stange.

Second, it was agreed that Wisconsin law governed the substantive claims in the case. While examining the issue of proximate cause on failure to warn, specifically whether plaintiff had carried his burden of proving a different warning would have changed plaintiff’s prescribing physician’s decision to prescribe, the court applied the learned intermediary rule which has never been adopted by any appellate court (only trial courts, which have split) under Wisconsin law. Id. at *22n.4 (no conflict between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin law on the scope of learned intermediary doctrine). We’ll add it to our learned intermediary “head count.”