Coyle by Coyle v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc.

Decision Date09 January 1991
Citation584 A.2d 1383,526 Pa. 208
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 12,684 William COYLE, a minor, by his parents and natural guardians, William and Marie COYLE, and William and Marie Coyle, in their own right, Appellants, v., and David Rubin and Seymour Margolis, t/a Bonnet Lane Pharmacy, Appellees.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Frank C. Woodside, III, Joseph E. Conley, Jr., Cincinnati, Ohio, Edward W. Madeira, Jr., Stephen S. Phillips, James M. Beck, Philadelphia, for Rubin & Margolis.

Nina Gussack, Philadelphia, for Richardson-Merrell, Inc.



ZAPPALA, Justice.

William and Marie Coyle brought this action against Richardson-Merrell, Inc., (now Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) ("Merrell Dow") and David Rubin and Seymour Margolis, pharmacists trading as Bonnet Lane Pharmacy ("Bonnet Lane"), alleging that Bendectin, a prescription drug manufactured by Merrell Dow and supplied to Marie Coyle by Bonnet Lane, caused their son to be born with malformed limbs. Common Pleas Court granted Bonnet Lane's motion for summary judgment and Superior Court affirmed. 372 Pa.Super. 118, 538 A.2d 1379. We granted allocatur to address the question whether a pharmacy should be subject to liability as a supplier in accordance with the principle of strict liability found in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A.

Superior Court decided this case by following a prior decision of that court, Makripodis v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 361 Pa.Super. 589, 523 A.2d 374 (1987). In Makripodis, the plaintiffs had alleged that a pharmacy "was strictly liable in tort as the retailer of a product which was unreasonably dangerous due to the absence of any warnings as to the teratogenic properties of the drug." 361 Pa.Super. at 591, 523 A.2d at 377. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the pharmacy. Citing our decisions in Incollingo v. Ewing, 444 Pa. 263, 299, 282 A.2d 206 (1971), and Baldino v. Castagna, 505 Pa. 239, 478 A.2d 807 (1984), the court stated that "in an action against a drug manufacturer based upon inadequate warnings, the issue to be determined is whether the warning, if any, that was given to the prescribing physicians was proper and adequate." 361 Pa.Super. at 597, 523 A.2d at 378. Observing that it would be incongruous to impose on pharmacists a greater duty to warn patients than is imposed on drug manufacturers, the court held that "a retail pharmacist is not required to provide to the patient-consumer such warnings as are required to be provided to physicians by the manufacturers of prescription drugs." Id.

In this appeal, the Coyles argue that Makripodis was wrongly decided and should be overruled. In the alternative, they argue that their complaint alleged a basis of strict liability independent of the issue of inadequate warning that is not precluded by the holding or the rationale of Makripodis.

According to the appellants, Makripodis should be overruled because it represents an unwarranted departure from the law of supplier liability under Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 402A (1965), which has been applied "uniformly and without exception " since it was adopted as the law of Pennsylvania in 1966. Brief of Appellants at 10 (emphasis in original). We examine this argument first.

Section 402A provides in relevant part that

(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if

(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and

(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

Comment f to § 402A states that it "applies to any manufacturer of such a product, [and] to any wholesale or retail dealer or distributor...." This Court adopted § 402A as the law of the Commonwealth in Webb v. Zern, 422 Pa. 424, 220 A.2d 853 (1966). We have also stated its applicability to sellers as well as manufacturers in a number of factual settings, adopting comment f and applying the rule to cases involving suppliers other than sellers as well. Francioni v. Gibsonia Trucking Company, 472 Pa. 362, 372 A.2d 736 (1977). The essence of the Coyles' argument is that the rule of strict supplier liability, as set out in the Restatement and as developed in caselaw, admits of no exception for pharmacists, whom they characterize as simply suppliers of prescription drugs.

We begin our analysis by observing that the Coyles' argument rests on a misperception of the nature of the applicable law. Even where this Court has "adopted" a section of the Restatement as the law of Pennsylvania, the language is not to be considered controlling in the manner of a statute. Such precepts, though they may govern large numbers of cases, are nothing other than common law pronouncements by the courts; their validity depends solely on the reasoning that supports them. Where the facts of a case demonstrate that the rule outruns the reason, the court has the power, indeed the obligation, to refuse to apply the rule, a power for the most part unavailable where the rule is legislatively ordained. Were it otherwise, our recognition of the work of the American Law Institute would approach an improper conferral of legislative authority. In short, the court always retains the right and the duty to test the reason behind a common law rule in determining the applicability of such rule to the facts before it. In the face of contrary arguments as to why the rule should not apply in a given case, it is not enough to say merely that the rule as stated contains no exceptions.

Neither is it correct to say that the rule as stated, or as developed in caselaw, contains no exceptions. Comment k to Section 402A provides an explicit exception that is relevant in the present case. That comment recognizes that

[t]here are some products which, in the present state of human knowledge, are quite incapable of being made safe for their ordinary and intended use. These are especially common in the field of drugs.... Such a product, properly prepared, and accompanied by proper directions and warning, is not defective, nor is it unreasonably dangerous. The same is true of many other drugs, vaccines, and the like, many of which, for this very reason cannot be legally sold except to physicians, or under the prescription of a physician.... The seller of such products, again with the qualification that they are properly prepared and marketed, and proper warning is given, where the situation calls for it, is not to be held strictly liable for unfortunate consequences attending their use, merely because he has undertaken to supply the public with an apparently useful and desirable product, attended with a known but apparently reasonable risk.

We have also refused to extend the rule to suppliers where to do so would not advance the purpose of the rule. See Musser v. Vilsmeier Auction Co., 522 Pa. 367, 562 A.2d 279 (1989) (auctioneer); Nath v. National Equipment Leasing Corp., 497 Pa. 126, 439 A.2d 633 (1981) (financing lessor).

Since 1971, when this Court decided Incollingo v. Ewing, it has been clear that when a drug "is available only upon prescription of a duly licensed physician, the warning required is not to the general public or to the patient, but to the prescribing doctor." 444 Pa. at 288, 282 A.2d at 220. We formulated this rule with reference to comment k and the policies expressed therein. As Superior Court succinctly stated in Makripodis,

it is the duty of the prescribing physician to be fully aware of (1) the characteristics of the drug he is prescribing, (2) the amount of the drug which can be safely administered, and (3) the different medications the patient is taking. It is also the duty of the physician to advise the patient of any dangers or side effects associated with the use of the drug as well as how and when to take the drug. The warnings which must accompany such drugs are directed to the physician rather than to the patient-consumer as "[i]t is for the prescribing physician to use his independent medical judgment, taking into account the data supplied to him by the manufacturer, other medical literature, and any other source available to him, and weighing that knowledge against the personal medical history of his patient, whether to prescribe a given drug."

361 Pa.Super. at 596-97, 523 A.2d at 378, quoting Leibowitz v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation, 224 Pa.Super. 418, 431, 307 A.2d 449, 457 (1973).

In arguing that pharmacists have an independent duty to warn of allegedly dangerous characteristics of prescription drugs they dispense, the appellants give scant attention to the rule of Incollingo or its rationale. Under that rule, information about the risks of medicines is provided to the person who most needs and can best evaluate it--the physician--to be shared with and explained to the patient in the context of his or her individual medical circumstances. If the manufacturer has no duty to directly warn patients of the risks of drugs, it would indeed be incongruous to hold pharmacists to such a duty in the dispensing of drugs.

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