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Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Is the "Ordinary" Purpose of an "Extraordinary" Product?

I recently reviewed a new decision out of West Virginia involving the implied warranty of merchantability ("IWM"), Teamsters v. Bristol Myers Squibb.  Many Contracts Profs teach IWM as part of their UCC coverage but some do not.  For those unfamiliar...any sale of good by a merchant comes with the IWM assuming that the state has adopted its own version of UCC 2-314. Under West Virginia law (and under the UCC), goods are "merchantable" if they "are fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used." Although IWM cases are common, this case is particularly interesting (at least to me) because it involved the following issue: What is the "ordinary" purpose of a supposedly "extraordinary" product?

In Teamsters, the product was Plavix, a prescription anti-coagulant. According to the FDA, Plavix's blood-thinning properties could help treat "patients who experienced a recent heart attack [or] stroke." The drug reportedly was marketed as a superior alternative to Aspirin, a much cheaper, over-the-counter anti-coagulant taken by similar patient groups. Plaintiffs alleged that Plavix's "ordinary and intended pharmacological purpose" was "being a superior alternative to asprin for certain indicated usages."  Because Plavix allegedly worked no better than Aspirin, Plaintiffs alleged breach of IWM. Defendants countered that the "ordinary purpose" of Plavix was "to act as an anticoagulant" and nothing more.  

The West Virginia court agreed with Defendants.  The court gave the following fact-based reasons:

"The FDA approved Plavix for its blood-thinning properties in treating patients who experienced a recent heart attack, stroke, PAD, or ACS. There is no indication that the FDA approval was related to Plavix's efficacy compared to aspirin and other alternatives. Also, this Court has reviewed the Plavix labeling information, and has found nothing on that label suggesting that Plavix's ordinary purpose was to act as a superior alternative to aspirin or Aggrenox."

These reasons were supported by citations to Williston on Contracts and other sources indicating that IWM "requires only that the goods be fit for their ordinary purpose, not that they be...outstanding or superior....or function as well as the buyer would like." Thus, because "Plaintiffs [did] not allege that Plavix was not fit for its ordinary purpose of being an anticoagulant," the IWM was not breached.  

When I read the case, I wasn't entirely convinced by the cited sources because they dealt with claims involving products marketed as ordinary (as far as I could tell). I also couldn't help but think back to the (in)famous claim of Papa John's regarding its pizza--"Better Ingredients, Better Pizza--Papa John's." I recalled that being an express warranty case but it turns out that it was a Lanham Act case brought by Pizza Hut. I suppose that if a product is marketed as extraordinary, the warranty claims will be based on those assertions (whether under express warranty, false advertising, etc.) and not on IWM.  So, the "ordinary" purpose of an "extraordinary" product becomes irrelevant.  Regardless, I'm still a bit puzzled by the question.

[Heidi R. Anderson, h/t to student, Shawn Matter]

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