1988 DES Case: Brown v. Superior Court


In current litigation several significant issues have arisen relating to the liability of manufacturers of prescription drugs for injuries caused by their products. Our first and broadest inquiry is whether such a manufacturer may be held strictly liable for a product that is defective in design. The remaining questions relate to the scope of liability of producers of diethylstilbestrol (DES) under the market share theory enunciated in Sindell v. Abbett Laboratories (1980). Specifically, we shall determine whether a plaintiff who proceeds under that theory may base her action on fraud or breach of warranty, and whether the manufacturers joined in the action are jointly and severally liable for any damages that may be awarded, or whether their liability is confined to their share of the relevant market for DES.

BROWN v. SUPERIOR COURT, Leagle, 1988109344Cal3d1049_11053, March 31, 1988.

A number of plaintiffs filed actions in the San Francisco Superior Court against numerous drug manufacturers which allegedly produced DES, a substance plaintiffs claimed was used by their mothers to prevent miscarriage. They alleged that the drug was defective and they were injured in utero when their mothers ingested it. The cases raised several common issues and, in order to facilitate their resolution and conserve judicial resources, the presiding judge, pursuant to a procedure recommended by the Judicial Council, designated the actions as “complex litigation.”

Each case was assigned its own number and had an independent existence, but the court’s pretrial rulings on the law were made in a separate case with a separate number (830-109), and were to be binding on the other actions. At least 69 cases are involved. Under the court’s order, additional cases may be governed by its rulings if actions subsequently filed present the same issues. The proceeding before us involves a series of pretrial rulings in case 830-109.

A typical complaint in the complex litigation names 170 or more drug companies as defendants. It is alleged that they manufactured DES from the same formula, and that the drug was unsafe for use in preventing miscarriage and resulted in severe injury to plaintiff. Defendants knew that the drug contained a cancer-causing substance, yet they failed to warn users or their physicians of these dangerous characteristics. Plaintiff seeks to hold defendants liable on theories of strict liability, breach of express and implied warranty, fraud, and negligence. In the event plaintiff is unable to identify the manufacturer of the specific brand of DES that caused her injuries, she seeks to hold liable “those defendant manufacturers who manufactured a substantial share of the appropriate market for said drug.”

The trial court made pretrial rulings in favor of defendants on the issues stated above. That is, it determined that defendants could not be held strictly liable for the alleged defect in DES but only for their failure to warn of known or knowable side effects of the drug. It held further that neither breach of warranty nor fraud will lie in an action based on the market share theory of Sindell.Finally, the court ruled that defendants could not be held jointly and severally liable for the entire amount of the judgment if plaintiff prevails in the action, but that each defendant would be liable only for the proportion of the amount awarded that represented its share of the appropriate DES market.

Plaintiff sought a writ of mandate or prohibition in the Court of Appeal to review the foregoing rulings. That court issued an alternative writ and, after considering the issues, upheld the trial court’s determination and denied a peremptory writ. We granted review to examine the conclusions of the Court of Appeal and its potential conflict with Kearl v. Lederle Laboratories (1985), on the issue of strict liability of a drug manufacturer for a defect in the design of a prescription drug.” …

…continue reading the full paper BROWN v. SUPERIOR COURT, on Leagle.

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