Brooks v. Medtronic, Inc., 83-2223

Decision Date21 December 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-2223,83-2223
Citation750 F.2d 1227
PartiesWalter R. BROOKS, Jr., Appellant, v. MEDTRONIC, INC., a corporation, Appellee, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Amicus Curiae.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Joseph G. Wright, III, Anderson, S.C. (Ernest C. Trammell, Wright & Trammell, Anderson, S.C., on brief), for appellant.

William M. Grant, Jr., Greenville, S.C. (Edwin B. Parkinson, Jr., Haynsworth, Perry, Bryant, Marion & Johnstone, Greenville, S.C., on brief), for appellee.

Ellis I. Kahn, Solomon, Kahn, Smith & Baumil, Charleston, S.C., David S. Shrager, President, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Pittsburgh, Pa., on brief, for amicus curiae.

Before HALL, MURNAGHAN and CHAPMAN, Circuit Judges.

MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judge:

Walter R. Brooks, Jr. appeals from a final judgment entered by the district court on a jury verdict in favor of Medtronic, Inc. Brooks allegedly suffered injuries when his Medtronic cardiac pacemaker failed shortly after it was implanted. Believing Medtronic's pacemaker defective, Brooks brought a products liability action. On appeal Brooks contends that the district court did not properly instruct the jury on the scope of the manufacturer's duty to warn in a products liability action.

I

On August 7, 1980 Brooks entered the St. Francis Community Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina with an acute myocardial infarction. Brooks, who had a history of heart trouble, was in critical condition. In an attempt to stabilize his condition, Brooks was fitted with a temporary pacemaker, and over the next several days Brooks' internist, Dr. Rowland, and cardiologist, Dr. Ross, evaluated Brooks and concluded that he was a good candidate for a permanent pacemaker. The doctors explained to Brooks and his wife that a permanent unit was indicated because of the extensive history of heart disease and because Brooks lived a fair distance from the nearest hospital. If appellant should experience further heart problems, the doctors said, a pacemaker would increase his chances of surviving long enough to reach the hospital.

On August 12th Brooks met Dr. Childs, the general and thoracic surgeon recommended by Dr. Rowland, and discussed the need for a pacemaker. The following day Brooks underwent implant surgery. Assisting Dr. Childs was a Medtronic representative trained to provide technical assistance during surgery. The Medtronic representative tested the unit and found it was functioning properly. Later that afternoon, however, Brooks experienced fifteen episodes of ventricular fibrillations. Each attack required the hospital staff to apply counter electrical shock treatments to restore Brooks' heart to a normal paced beat. The fibrillations ended when Dr. Childs disconnected the pulse generator. 1 However, because the defibrillations stressed Brooks' heart, he had no choice but to agree to a second implant. On August 15, 1980 Dr. Childs repositioned the Medtronic lead he had initially inserted in Brooks' heart and implanted a second pulse generator. Since that time Brooks has not had any problems with his Medtronic pacemaker.

On March 22, 1983 Brooks filed a complaint, asserting causes of action for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. At trial Brooks did not pursue his breach of warranty claim. Instead, he attempted to establish (1) that the pulse generator did not work properly; (2) that the Medtronic lead selected by Dr. Childs was defectively designed because the tines or prongs on its end were too short to remain lodged in the heart muscle while fibrous tissue grew around the lead; (3) that the lead became dislodged from his heart tissue and caused the pulse generator to send electrical impulses at inappropriate times; (4) that Medtronic failed to warn him about the risk of lead dislodgement; 2 and (5) that Medtronic was negligent because its representative did not advise his physician that an improved endocardial lead, with longer tines, had become available several months before Brooks underwent implant surgery. 3

At the close of the evidence, the district judge instructed the jury on Brooks' strict liability and negligence theories. Both parties objected to portions of the court's charge. Under strict products liability, the district court charged that the manufacturer had a duty to warn physicians of any dangerous characteristics that were not well known to the medical community. Brooks' counsel objected that the jury should have been instructed that Medtronic also had a duty to warn the consumer directly of known risks associated with implant surgery. Brooks, however, did not object to other parts of the charge and in particular did not contest the court's negligence instruction.

Medtronic, on the other hand, did object to the form of the negligence instruction. Although agreeing that it had an obligation reasonably to advise the medical community of its product developments, Medtronic argued that it had no duty to insure that particular physicians received notice of new products. The district judge agreed that he may have overstated appellant's case by instructing that Medtronic had a duty to personally warn particular physicians using its products. The district court recharged the jury on negligence. 4

After some deliberation, the jurors advised the court that they had reached a verdict on the strict liability cause of action, but had not yet agreed on negligence. 5 The jury was told to return for further deliberation. Thereafter Brooks elected to dismiss his negligence action and asked the Court to instruct the jury to return a verdict solely on the strict liability claim. Undoubtedly Brooks and his counsel regretted the decision for it was a misreading of the probable outcome on strict liability. The jury returned a verdict for Medtronic.

II

The first issue on appeal is whether, under South Carolina law, 6 a manufacturer of a pacemaker has a duty to warn the consumer directly about potential risks or whether warnings to the physician are instead sufficient. We find no South Carolina cases directly on point. Consequently, we are relegated to ascertaining as best we can how the South Carolina Supreme Court would rule.

Under the theory of strict products liability, as embodied in section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965), the manufacturer of a product sold "in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous" is liable to the ultimate user who is injured by the product. 7 Certain products, particularly ethical drugs 8 and medical devices, often cause unwanted side effects despite the fact that they have been carefully designed and properly manufactured. In section 402A terminology, such products are deemed "unavoidably unsafe," but are not defective or unreasonably dangerous if they are marketed with proper directions for use or include adequate warnings of potential side effects. 9 Id. at comment k. Failure to give such a warning constitutes a "defect" in the product and renders the manufacturer liable for selling a product in an unreasonably dangerous manner. Id.

Although ordinarily warnings must be given to the ultimate user of a product, 10 a different approach has been developed for prescription drugs. It is settled in a substantial majority of jurisdictions that the duty a manufacturer of ethical drugs "owes to the consumer is to warn only physicians (or other medical personnel permitted by state law to prescribe drugs) of any risks or contraindications associated with that drug." Stanback v. Parke, Davis and Co., 657 F.2d 642, 644 (4th Cir.1981) (predicting Virginia law). Accord Reyes v. Wyeth Laboratories, 498 F.2d 1264 (5th Cir.1974), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1096, 95 S.Ct. 687, 42 L.Ed.2d 688 (1974) (Texas law); Davis v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 399 F.2d 121 (9th Cir.1968) (Montana law); Sterling Drug, Inc. v. Cornish, 370 F.2d 82 (8th Cir.1966) (Missouri law). If the prescribing physician has received adequate notice of possible complications, the manufacturer has no duty to warn the consumer. In that instance, the physician is called on to act as a "learned intermediary" between the manufacturer and the consumer because he is in the best position to understand the patient's needs and assess the risks and benefits of a particular course of treatment. As the Court explained in Stanback:

The restriction of the duty to warn to physicians alone in ethical drug cases stands as an exception to the general duty of manufacturers to warn ultimate consumers in products liability cases, but it is a rule supported by sound policy considerations, as the Fifth Circuit made clear in Reyes v. Wyeth Laboratories, 498 F.2d 1264, 1276, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1096, 95 S.Ct. 687, 42 L.Ed.2d 688 (1974):

Prescription drugs are likely to be complex medicines, esoteric in formula and varied in effect. As a medical expert, the prescribing physician can take into account the propensities of the drug, as well as the susceptibilities of his patient. His is the task of weighing the benefits of any medication against its potential dangers. The choice he makes is an informed one, an individualized medical judgment bottomed on a knowledge of both patient and palliative. Pharmaceutical companies then, who must warn ultimate purchasers of dangers inherent in patent drugs sold over the counter, in selling prescription drugs are required to warn only the prescribing physician, who acts as a "learned intermediary" between manufacturer and consumer.

657 F.2d at 644 n. 2. Although the South Carolina Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, we conclude it would adopt the rule, generally accepted and supported by sound policy, restricting the manufacturer's duty to warn to the prescribing physician.

Brooks contends, nevertheless, that the prescription drug exception does not apply on the facts of his case. Two principal reasons are advanced. First, unlike the situation in prescription drug cases, he argues...

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