Now it’s the plaintiffs’ turn. The five victims of the Depuy Pinnacle artificial hip have answered the appeal of Depuy Orthopaedics and Johnson & Johnson in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And as they did at trial, the plaintiffs have come out fighting.
Recap of Depuy’s Appeal
A few weeks ago I wrote about the appeal brought by Depuy and Johnson & Johnson after a Texas jury awarded $502 million dollars to five plaintiffs. You can read about the Defendants’ appeal here. But to recap, Depuy and J&J argue that they were unfairly prejudiced by the plaintiffs’ team aggressive tactics at trial. They argue that Defendants are entitled to a new trial because the plaintiffs’ team had “a strategy” to “inflame the jury through highly prejudicial evidence and wholly inappropriate argument.”
A focus of Depuy’s appeal is that the companies were deeply prejudiced in the eyes of the jury based on “highly inflammatory, irrelevant, and prejudicial evidence” presented by the plaintiffs. Depuy contends that plaintiffs’ reference to payments made by Depuy to “henchmen of Saddam Hussein” was unfairly prejudicial (and thus violated Rule of Evidence 403). Turns out affiliates of Defendants had made improper payments to the Iraqi government. Judge Kinkeade, who presides over the Depuy Pinnacle litigation, allowed the improper payment evidence because Depuy made “character” an issue in the trial by repeatedly characterizing itself as a wholesome company with small town values.
Plaintiffs’ Appeal Brief
On Friday (March 31, 2017), the plaintiffs’ team filed its legal brief in response to Depuy’s appeal. It is a spirited document, and sets out the long (unhappy) history of the Depuy Pinnacle metal-on-metal hip and the injuries it has caused. The plaintiffs refute every issue Depuy raises in its appeal. Further, the plaintiffs asks the Fifth Circuit to restore the $360,000,000.00 in punitive damages awarded by the jury. I wrote about that jury verdict here and Judge Kinkeade’s reduction of the punitive damages award here.
Ultamet Metal Liner
The focus in the Depuy Pinnacle litigation has been on the company’s (aggressive) marketing and sale of the Ultamet metal insert liner in the Pinnacle artificial hip system. Plaintiffs have argued that this metal liner has created the conditions for the metal-on-metal grinding that has caused so many injuries. The plaintiffs do not argue that the polyethylene or plastic liners have negligently caused injury. Rather, it is the metal insert liner that has caused the thousands of premature artificial hip failures and the thousands of lawsuits against Depuy and Johnson & Johnson. The plaintiffs’ brief sets out this history of Depuy’s pushing this metal-on-metal hip system onto the market, despite evidence that the metal-on-metal hips caused too many problems.
Reference to Saddam Hussein
The plaintiffs also argue aggressively that their use of the term “henchmen of Saddam Hussein” was not unfairly prejudicial to Depuy. First, despite Depuy’s argument that plaintiffs used the term repeatedly, the plaintiffs point out in their response brief that the phrase was used just once in a nine-week trial. Further, the reference to unlawful payments to Iraq was presented as character evidence against the company, evidence the judge allowed because Depuy characterized itself as a “virtuous” company whose “sole goal” was to”produce products that help people get better.” Plaintiffs’ Brief. As it turns out, corporate affiliates of J&J had been sanctioned for making unlawful payments to the Iraqi government when Saddam Hussein was alive and well and the leader of Iraq. Judge Kinkeade noted at trial that Depuy had opened the door for the jury to hear this character evidence against Depuy when the defense team introduced evidence of Depuy’s wholesome reputation. Finally, the plaintiffs on appeal argue that the one reference to “henchmen” could not have been “unfairly prejudicial” because Judge Kinkeade gave the proper jury instruction that required the jury to consider only admitted evidence and explaining that a lawyer’s comments are not evidence.
Plaintiffs Ask Appeals Court to Restore $360 Million in Punitive Damages
The jury in this case originally awarded the five plaintiffs $360,000,000.00 in punitive damages (over and above actual, compensatory damages). Punitive damages are money damages, separate from compensatory damages, which are awarded by a jury and which are intended to punish or deter a bad-acting defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct. After the trial, Judge Kinkeade reduced the $360,000,000.00 punitive damages award to $9,646,256.00. Judge Kinkeade wrote that he was bound by a Texas statute which puts a “cap” on the amount of punitive damages a jury can award. In Texas, the limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded “may not exceed an amount of two times the amount of economic damages; plus an amount equal to any noneconomic damages found by the jury, not to exceed $750,000; or $200,000, whichever is greater.” So the statute benchmarks punitive damages on the amount of other money damages awarded to the injured person.
The plaintiffs now ask the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse this reduction in punitive damages and to find that the Texas statute capping punitive damages is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs make a compelling argument, because the statutory cap potentially harms certain injured plaintiffs more than others. Because the Texas statute calculates punitive damages based the individual plaintiff’s actual damages, wealthy or young plaintiffs would ultimately recover more punitive damages than those plaintiffs who do not earn a lot of money or who received fewer compensatory damages for other reasons, such as old age.
In their brief, plaintiffs argue: “A plaintiff with a large income who is injured or killed by another’s wrongdoing will likely have far more “economic damages” than a plaintiff with a modest income. Further, retirees, persons with disabilities, or spouses not working outside the home will likewise have minimal “economic damages” under Texas law.” Plaintiffs’ Brief. What this means is that in Texas punitive damages will be awarded differently if the injured person is unemployed, retired, or disabled; and that the plaintiff who is young or who earns a lot of money may end up with more punitive damages than the low earning person, even though the jury intended to punish the defendants equally for the companies’ very bad behavior. This does not seem fair. The statute could well be ruled unconstitutional.
The Fifth Circuit will take several months to decide this appeal. I will keep you posted, as always. And if you have a Depuy Pinnacle hip with a metal liner that is giving you problems, give me a call to discuss further.