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Thursday, February 4, 2021

FDA reg doesn't preempt state medical device liability, but plaintiff must plead 'plausible' theory, Court says

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Medical-device liability claims in state courts are not preempted by federal law, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court confirmed Friday, but the plaintiff before the Court failed to meet the pleading standard.

Seeking relief from the pain of osteoarthritis, Plaintiff Dunn received in her knees two injections of "Synvisc-One," a product of defendant Genzyme Corp. and an FDA-approved "Class III medical device," the Court retold.  Subsequently, she "experienced severe side effects, including 'pain and swelling in her knees, difficulty walking, hip bursitis and systemic pseudoseptic acute arthritis," resulting in falls and injuries, including a torn meniscus and broken neck.

The plaintiff sued Genzyme in negligence and product liability and under Massachusetts consumer protection law.  Commonly called "93A," after its codification, the latter theory of unfair or deceptive practices is favored by plaintiffs' lawyers for its allowance of punitive damages upon an up-to-treble multiplier.  Massachusetts allows punitive damages only upon statutory authorization, and 93A is generous, tracking tort liability theories, including product liability, that would not be thought of as statutory consumer protection in other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that state law claims are not necessarily preempted by regulatory approval under the 1976 Medical Device Regulation Act (MDA).  To survive preemption, a plaintiff's claim must parallel, and not exceed, federal regulatory requirements.

Justice Gaziano
Applying the Supreme Court standard, the SJC determined that the plaintiff's claims met the standard.  Specifically, "negligent failure to warn, breach of warranty, negligent manufacture, products liability, and violations of [chapter] 93A—all can be interpreted as coextensive with the comprehensive Federal requirements."

Contrary to implication by the defense, the SJC held that a plaintiff asserting medical-device liability in parallel with the MDA is not required to plead with the high level of particularity (Rule 9(b)) required in fraud.  Rather, the requisite pleading standard is "plausibility": "plaintiffs asserting parallel State-law claims based upon a violation of FDA regulations must articulate only "factual allegations plausibly suggesting (not merely consistent with) an entitlement to relief" (quoting SJC precedent).

Nevertheless, the plaintiff failed to meet that standard.  The complaint alleged foreseeability of "significant dangers," known or reasonably knowable "dangerous propensities," and, as an alternative theory, adulteration or defect of the product.  But the plaintiff alleged no factual support for causation linking the injection to the injury other than "temporal proximity."  Evidence of other complaints about the product would have helped, the Court suggested.  But deficiency of pleading does not entitle a plaintiff to discovery.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court's denial of the defense motion to dismiss.

The case is Dunn v. Genzyme Corp., No. SJC-12904 (Mass. Jan. 29, 2021).  Justice Frank M. Gaziano authored the opinion of the unanimous Court.

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