A Pennsylvania federal judge has ruled that plaintiffs can seek unlimited punitive damages under Alabama law in the first bellwether trial later this year in multidistrict litigation. It’s alleged that the acetaminophen in various Tylenol products from a Johnson & Johnson Inc. unit was responsible for users’ severe liver damage. U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel ruled that Denice Hayes, who died of acute liver failure after taking Extra Strength Tylenol, lived in Alabama, bought the medicine in Alabama and died in Alabama. The judge found that those facts outweigh the fact that Johnson & Johnson and its Tylenol-manufacturing subsidiary McNeil-PPC Inc. are New Jersey corporations.
This decision is seen to be a blow to Johnson & Johnson, which sought to apply more drugmaker-friendly New Jersey law that would have minimized the wrongful death and punitive damages claims in the case. New Jersey precludes punitive damages in drugs product liability cases in which the drug at issue has been generally recognized as safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Judge Stensel stated:
In short, the plaintiff could gain maximum punitive damages under Alabama law and minimal, if any, punitive damages under New Jersey law.
Rana Terry, the plaintiff, sued on behalf of her sister, Ms. Hayes’ alleging she took Tylenol Extra Strength in August 2010 according to the label’s instructions. But Ms. Hayes went to the emergency room later that month with catastrophic liver damage and died a week later. It’s alleged that Johnson & Johnson has known for years that the medicine is defective and unreasonably dangerous. The suit includes claims of negligent design defect, breach of express warranty and fraud, among others. The suit is part of multidistrict litigation that includes nearly 200 other cases.
Judge Stengel said in his opinion that a “true conflict” exists between Alabama’s law and New Jersey’s. Alabama law is clearly intended to protect the lives of its citizens by imposing unlimited damages on tortfeasors causing death, whereas New Jersey law is designed to protect drugmakers from excessive damages in product liability cases, he said. The judge wrote:
Where one state’s interest is to protect the economic interests of its corporations and another state’s interest is to protect its citizens from tortious conduct within its borders, courts in this district are inclined to find the latter interest to be greater, especially when the plaintiff’s home state is also the place of injury.
This was a significant win for the plaintiffs in this bellwether case, which is scheduled to go to trial on October 26 of this year. It will be most interesting to see what the jury does in the trial. I predict that there will be a substantial jury verdict in the case.
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