Florida Federal District Court Tough on Plaintiff’s Phamaceutical Lawsuit Complaint Language

Last month, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida reiterated the significance of litigants’ properly and succinctly setting forth, within their pleadings, the factual and legal bases for which relief should be granted or denied. Gomez v. Pfizer, Inc. — F. Supp. 2d —, No. 09-22700-CIV, 2009 WL 4908937 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 21, 2009).

In Gomez, the plaintiff claimed to have developed severe headaches, body aches, and fever after taking the prescription medication Zoloft. She went to the hospital, where she was administered and prescribed Tylenol and Motrin for pain relief. Her condition allegedly worsened, and she was ultimately diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a life-threatening skin condition that causes the epidermis to separate from the dermis. She then filed suit against multiple defendants alleging theories of negligence and strict liability, and contending that her use of Zoloft, Motrin, and Tylenol – solely or in combination with one another – caused her to suffer the condition.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint. In so doing, they argued that the plaintiff’s negligence theory was insufficient in that it offered “nothing more than a recitation of the elements of duty and breach generally, a general recitation of alleged breaches, untethered to any actual facts, and the conclusion that those alleged breache[s] caused [the plaintiff's] injury.” Id. The court agreed, holding that the plaintiff failed to set forth in detail each of the defendant’s individualized relationships to the medications in question, individualized duties to the plaintiff, and individualized breaches of that duty.

Second, the defendants attacked the plaintiff’s cause of action for strict liability. They argued that the complaint, which set forth that the products were “defectively designed and/or manufactured because [their] intended use resulted in a substantial and unreasonable likihood of causing Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which rendered [them] unreasonably dangerous for [their] intended use,” constituted nothing more than “bare legal conclusions.” The court agreed, noting that the plaintiff’s failure to set forth a specific theory upon which strict liability should be applied–defective design, manufacture, or failure to warn–prejudiced the defendants because they could not “determine which doctrine is at issue, much less how to frame a proper response.” Id.

The court dismissed the negligence and strict liability causes of action set forth within the complaint as a result of these fatal flaws, holding that a complaint’s allegations must include “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “Threadbare recitals” of elements of a cause of action for products liability, supported by mere conclusory statements, will not suffice. Id. (internal citations omitted).

As this court demonstrates, a complaint which does not thoroughly and specifically set forth the theories and facts upon which it argues relief should be granted should be attacked for insufficiency. Defendants who are thereafter called upon to establish and foster an appropriate defense are prejudiced by anything less.

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