By Joshua Frumkin, Esq.
The jury’s verdict for the manufacturer on a strict liability product defect claim did not compel a verdict in its favor on a negligent design claim.
In a case brought by a patient alleging injuries from a hip implant system, a Missouri federal court refused to alter its $21,000,000 judgment against Biomet, Inc., Biomet Orthopedics, LLC, Biomet U.S. Reconstruction, LLC, and Biomet Manufacturing Corp. (collectively, Biomet). The court found that Biomet's motion failed on both procedural grounds and on the merits, and that the jury’s verdicts could be harmonized (Bayes v. Biomet, Inc., August 2, 2021, Clark, S.).
A patient asserted claims for strict liability product defect and negligent design after sustaining injuries from Biomet's M2a-MagnumTM Hip Implant System. The jury returned a verdict for Biomet on strict liability product defect and for the patient on negligent design. In a previous decision, the court ordered judgment against Biomet for $20,000,000 in actual damages in favor of the patient, and $1,000,000 in favor of her husband [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 30, 2020 analysis]. The court denied Biomet's subsequent motions for entry of judgment in its favor or, in the alternative, for a new trial or mistrial. In the instant case, Biomet moved to alter the judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e).
Motion to alter or amend. A motion to alter or amend a judgment must be filed no later than 28 days after entry of judgment. Rule 59(e) motions are used to correct manifest errors of law or fact, or present newly discovered evidence; they cannot be used to present evidence or raise arguments that could have been raised prior to judgment.
The court denied Biomet’s motion as procedurally improper. Biomet argued that it preserved the issue by making a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law after close of evidence and a 50(b) renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict. The court determined that this argument constituted an admission that Biomet’s motion asserted the same issues that the court already considered: Rule 59(e) motions do not permit a litigant to raise the same arguments previously ruled on after a Rule 50(b) motion.
Inconsistent verdicts. The court determined that Biomet's motion failed on the merits as well. Parties can challenge inconsistent jury verdicts through a Rule 59(e) motion. Biomet argued that the jury, in rejecting the patient’s strict liability product defect claim, must have found that an element necessary to prove negligent design was not met. The court dispensed with Biomet's "attempt at obfuscation" wherein Biomet argued that it did not claim that the verdicts were inconsistent and was entitled to judgment based on the verdict. Because Biomet argued that the verdicts could not be reconciled, it necessarily argued that the verdicts were inconsistent.
"One or more" findings. The court determined that the jury's verdicts were consistent with the final verdict form provided to the jury, which mirrored the form provided by Biomet, as it permitted the jury to find Biomet liable for negligent design even if it was not found strictly liable. The jury instruction specified that the jury could issue "one or more" findings in favor of the patient. As such, the court found that Biomet’s motion failed because it neglected to object to that jury instruction before the jury reached its verdict. The court also dismissed Biomet's argument that it only realized that certain issues were undisputed after closing arguments, since Biomet neglected to object during or immediately after closing arguments. The court ruled that Biomet could not agree to jury instructions and a verdict form, receive an unfavorable verdict, and then argue that the instructions and verdict form produced an inconsistent verdict based on those instructions and form.
Alignment with Missouri law. The Missouri Supreme Court has previously ruled that juries do not need to reach verdicts in favor of the same party when considering both strict liability and negligent design claims. The state high court stated that they are separate theories and that a finding against claimants on strict liability does not require a rejection of claims for negligent design, manufacturing, or failure to warn.
Verdicts harmonized. The court here considered and rejected Biomet's argument that specific elements of strict liability and negligent design claims cannot be opposing. The court also noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has repeatedly ruled that courts cannot speculate as to why a jury reached a specific verdict when a general verdict is issued. It was questionable as to whether the court could consider the elements that the jury relied upon when reaching two separate verdicts. The court found that Biomet's argument rested on an assumption previously rejected by the court: that the only elements the jury could have found in Biomet's favor on strict liability were defective design and causation. The court rejected the faulty underlying premise that the element "used in a manner reasonably anticipated" was undisputed, as Biomet had introduced evidence putting that element at issue. The court ruled that Biomet could not ex-post argue that the element was undisputed after disputing the evidence. Moreover, the court determined that Biomet waived its argument that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to the element of "used in a manner reasonably anticipated," as Biomet failed to seek judgment in its favor before the jury returned its verdict. Further, the court refused to speculate as to how the jury would have ruled on a disputed element present in the jury instructions pursuant to the Eighth Circuit ruling.
Additionally, Missouri law recognizes a distinction between the two claims: strict liability focuses on the product and not the conduct of the manufacturer or seller. Language concerning "when put to a reasonably anticipated use" controlled the strict liability inquiry but was absent from the negligent design inquiry. The second element of the jury instruction required the jury to consider whether the product was " in a defective condition  unreasonably dangerous  when put to a reasonably anticipated use." The court explained that the jury must consider all three components in determining whether the patient met the second element of the strict liability claim. As such, the court dismissed Biomet's argument that the jury must deem as established the second component after finding the third one. Accordingly, the court harmonized the verdicts and denied Biomet's motion.
The case is No. 4:13-cv-00800-SRC.
Attorneys: Darin L. Schanker (Bachus and Schanker LLC) for Mary Bayes and Philip Bayes. Adrienne Busby (Faegre Drinker LLP) for Biomet, Inc., Biomet Orthopedics, LLC, Biomet U.S. Reconstruction, LLC and Biomet Manufacturing Corp.
Companies: Biomet, Inc.; Biomet Orthopedics, LLC; Biomet U.S. Reconstruction, LLC; Biomet Manufacturing Corp.
MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews JuryVerdictsNewsStory MedicalDevicesNews MissouriNews
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