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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 7, 2016

Hip implant’s punitive damage award against Wright reduced from $10M to $1.1M

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

A $10 million punitive damages award in the first federal bellwether trial brought against Wright Medical Technology over its Converse hip implant device was cut to $1.1 million by the district court because it was excessive. However, the jury’s $1 million award in compensatory damages was upheld (In re: Wright Medical Technology, Inc., Conserve Hip Implant Products Liability Litigation (Christianson v. Wright Medical Technology, Inc.), April 5, 2016, Duffey, W.).

A patient had the Wright Conserve Hip Implant System implanted in 2006, but it failed six years later, requiring revision surgery. She brought negligent and strict liability design defect claims, as well as fraudulent concealment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and negligent misrepresentation claims, against Wright, seeking compensatory and punitive damages. After a trial, a jury found that the device was defectively designed and that Wright was liable for negligent misrepresentation but not for fraudulent misrepresentation. It awarded her $1 million in compensatory damages, including $450,000 for the misrepresentation claim and $550,000 for the design defect claim, along with $10 million in punitive damages [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 1, 2015 analysis]. Wright filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, and in the alternative, motion for new trial and to amend the judgment.

Punitive damages. The court determined that punitive damages were justified but the $10 million award was excessive. Although the jury found for Wright on the fraudulent misrepresentation claim, the punitive damages award was based not only on the finding of negligent misrepresentation but also on the jury’s finding that Wright’s conduct manifested a knowing and reckless indifference to the rights of the patient. The patient presented evidence that Wright knew of the harm that could result from active patients being implanted with a metal-on-metal device, and that it was aware that it lacked sufficient knowledge to support the representations about the implant’s safety that it was making to physicians and in its marketing materials. However, at the time the device was introduced, then-available hip replacement products had significant rates of failure, limited life, and articulation limitations that inhibited an active lifestyle, and one of the main motivations for the product was to improve the quality of life for active patients. Examining Utah’s guidelines for punitive damages and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court found that the 22 to 1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages for the negligent misrepresentation claim was unjustified and that a low single-digit ratio was appropriate. Weighing the facts and circumstances, the court concluded that $1.1 million would be reasonable and proportionate.

Compensatory damages. The court let stand the $1 million award for compensatory damages. Wright argued that the award was contrary to the weight of the evidence because only $40,000 of this amount was for economic damages, with the balance for pain and suffering. The patient presented evidence that she sustained pain and suffering as a result of the implant failure that are ongoing and that she has had to reduce the risks and exertions she formerly undertook. There is no set formula regarding the amount of noneconomic damages that may be awarded, and the amount was not so excessive that it clearly resulted from misunderstanding or prejudice.

Other issues. Wright was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial on the patient’s strict liability design defect claim on the ground that Comment k to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts exempted it from liability. Although the court found that Comment k provides for an affirmative defense involving prescribed medical devices implanted in the human body, the jury found that the manufacturer had not proven that the implant was properly prepared and accompanied by proper directions and warnings.

The court denied Wright’s request for judgment as a matter of law on the negligent design defect claim because contrary to the company’s argument, the verdict showed that the implant had defects resulting from the company’s failure to use reasonable care. It also determined that the jury had a legal basis for finding that Wright made careless or negligent misrepresentations.

The case is No. 1:13-cv-297-WSD (MDL No. 2329).

Attorneys: Michael Lee McGlamry (Pope McGlamry Kilpatrick Morrison & Norwood, PC) for Robyn Christiansen. Dana Jeffrey Ash (Duane Morris, PA) for Wright Medical Technology Inc.

Companies: Wright Medical Technology Inc.

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