Expert Testimony Needed To Prove Causation

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The Seventh Circuit recently upheld the grant of summary judgment against a plaintiff asserting products liability claims against the manufacturer of an intrauterine device (IUD). See Dalton v. Teva N. Am., No. 17-1990, 2018 WL 2470634 (7th Cir. June 4, 2018). Because the plaintiff failed to produce expert testimony regarding causation, as required under the Indiana Products Liability Act (the Act), she could not prove an essential element of her claims.  And the defendants—corporate affiliates who manufactured, marketed, and distributed the IUD—were entitled to summary judgment.

In 2007, Cheryl Dalton’s doctor implanted a ParaGard IUD in her uterus. After becoming dissatisfied with the IUD in 2013, she had her doctor remove it. The removal procedure, however, failed. A piece had broken off and became lodged in her uterus. Ms. Dalton’s doctor advised her that she would need a hysterectomy to remove the remaining portion of the IUD.

Ms. Dalton sued the defendants, collectively known as “Teva,” in federal court, alleging claims styled as “strict liability,” “strict products liability failure to warn,” and “manufacturer’s defect.” Because none of her claims arose under federal law, she proceeded under a theory of diversity jurisdiction.

After scolding all parties for failing to make the proper jurisdictional allegations and disclosures, the Seventh Circuit, satisfied with its jurisdiction over the matter, reviewed and upheld the district court’s ruling. See id. at *2 (“It should not have taken us two rounds of jurisdictional statements, oral argument, and supplemental briefing to extract this basic [jurisdictional] information from the parties.”).

Under the Act, a plaintiff must prove that whatever defect underlies the claim proximately caused her injury. Believing it unnecessary, Ms. Dalton did not put forth expert testimony on causation.

According to Ms. Dalton, the proximate cause of her injury was obvious—a juror could look at a broken IUD and plainly see that some error of Teva caused the break. But the Act insists on expert evidence when an issue is not within the understanding of a lay person. Specifically, if the circumstantial evidence would require the jury to engage in pure speculation, then expert evidence is required under Indiana law.

According to the Seventh Circuit, Ms. Dalton’s case presented “exactly the sort of speculation that is insufficient to sustain a products liability action under Indiana law.” Id. at *3. In fact, Ms. Dalton did not attempt to help the jury identify the cause of the break at all.  So, the court hypothesized that the break could have been caused by: (i) damage after coming into the physician’s possession, (ii) human error during implantation or removal, or (iii) something else entirely.

Therefore, the district court was correct to prevent Ms. Dalton from allowing the jury to speculate about the existence of a defect, the reason for the alleged defect, and that the alleged defect caused the break.  In other words, she needed expert testimony on causation.

As always, when faced with a products liability claim, look to the governing statute to shape your strategy. Sometimes mere allegations, even when accompanied by actual harm, are not enough.

We’ll keep an eye on this and other defect claims here at the Monitor.