Product Liability Claim: Massachusetts Court Emphasizes on Importance of Specificity of Facts

In a recent case of Dunn v. Genzyme Corp, SJC-12904, (Mass. 2021), the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed the first of its kind ruling regarding product liability. The seller of any product in Massachusetts has as duty to exercise reasonable care in the design, manufacture, and sale/marketing of the product. The consumer’s cause of action may be based on (i) negligence, (ii) breach of implied warranty of merchantability or (iii) Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 93A.

Plaintiff filed a suit in the year 2018 against Genzyme Corp. claiming product liability against its supplements which apparently worsened her arthritis. Plaintiff stated that she had received Genzyme’s Synvisc-One Injection, a joint lubricant approved as a medical device to treat osteoarthritis symptoms in 2015. She claimed that she began experiencing severe side effects, including knee pain and difficulty walking. The side-effects made her fall multiple times and suffer severe injuries, which included breaking her neck, requiring extended hospitalization and treatment. In her suit before the Norfolk Superior Court, she alleged failure to warn, breach of warranty, negligence and product liability. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the state law claims were preempted by the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the plaintiff has failed to state a claim under state law. The Norfolk Court denied defendant’s motion, stating that the claims made by the Plaintiff were not preempted as the state law did not impose any requirement beyond the federal law. The Court also noted that plaintiff did not have access to any public information which would have allowed her to plead with greater specificity.

Thereafter, defendant appealed before a mid-level appeals court. However, The Supreme Judicial Court took up the case sua sponte. During the proceedings, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association and the Washington Legal Foundation, filed amicus briefs in favor of the defendant.

The Supreme Judicial Court dismissed plaintiff’s lawsuit, thereby reversing the lower court’s ruling. The Court held that Plaintiff’s claims were not preempted as her suit runs parallel to, and not in addition to, the federal law, and did not require the state to impose stricter requirements on the manufacturer, than what is required under the federal law. However, her suit was liable to be dismissed as she failed to put forth any evidence to establish a direct link between the defendant’s supplement and the injuries she sustained after consuming the supplement.  The complaint only included “labels and conclusions” alleging that the defendant knew or should have known the device was dangerous, or it was adulterated at the time of its manufacture. Further, the Supreme Court held that plaintiff’s claim did not meet the standard set forth by the court in 2008 in Lannacchino v. Ford Motor Co[1]., which adopted a federal ruling given by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly[2]. Justice Frank Gaziano, in the unanimous judgment wrote that, “Fundamentally, the complaint does not proffer sufficient factual assertions that plausibly establish causality between Genzyme’s purportedly tortious activities and Dunn’s injuries… Rather, the complaint seems to imply that the temporal proximity between the injections of Synvisc-One and Dunn’s injuries alone is sufficient to establish the necessary element of causality.”

[1] 451 Mass. 623 (Mass. 2008)

[2] 550 U.S. 544 (U.S. 2007)

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