Tuesday, January 30, 2007
In the Prempro trial of Mary Daniel v. Wyeth, the jury yesterday rendered a verdict for the plaintiffs for $1.5 million in compensatory damages and finding a basis to move to a punitive damages phase, but today the judge ruled as a matter of law that the evidence was insufficient to hold Wyeth liable for punitive damages. In an interesting twist, however, the judge apparently has decided to allow the jury to hear the evidence on punitives and to render a verdict -- under seal -- in case her ruling is reversed on appeal. Here's an excerpt from the Reuters report by Jon Hurdle:
A judge on Tuesday agreed with Wyeth that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find that the drugmaker acted recklessly in marketing its Prempro hormone replacement therapy, but allowed the punitive damage phase of the trial to proceed pending an appeal of the ruling.
However, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Myrna Field ordered that any punitive damage award will not be made public unless an appeals court overturns her ruling.
A jury on Monday found that Wyeth failed to properly warn about the cancer risks associated with Prempro and that the drug was responsible for plaintiff Mary Daniel's breast cancer. It awarded Daniel and her husband some $1.5 million in compensatory damages.
The jury also found that Wyeth's conduct was malicious or showed reckless indifference, a finding that under Pennsylvania law would send the jury back to determine additional punitive damages to be paid by the Madison, New Jersey-based company.
While Field ruled in Wyeth's favor, effectively setting aside that part of the jury's verdict -- a ruling that would limit Wyeth's liability to the $1.5 million -- she agreed to allow punitive damages deliberations to proceed under seal after Daniel's attorneys said they would appeal the ruling.
The judge accepted arguments by lawyers for the plaintiff that a decision by an appeals court to overturn her ruling would necessitate a new trial, and that to keep costs down the jury should be allowed to come up with a punitive damages figure that would be kept under wraps, but could be used by the appeals court if necessary.
As a matter of judicial process, it's comparable to the granting of a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law (JNOV) after denying the initial motion and allowing the jury to deliberate. The goal is to avoid the inefficiency of a retrial in the event of appellate reversal of the legal ruling. But Judge Field's action presents two twists on the usual situation. First, the judge announced her ruling to the lawyers before proceeding to the punitive damages phase. Even if a judge knows that she intends to grant JNOV, it must be rare for the judge to announce that intention before the jury deliberates, much less before the lawyers present the final round of evidence. Second, the judge apparently ordered that the final phase and the jury's verdict be conducted under seal. Ordinarily, the trial and verdict would be accessible to the public even if the judge chooses to grant JNOV.