William A. Ruskin: No FIFRA Preemption, No Problem!

By William A. Ruskin

In Gresser v. Dow Chemical Co., Ind. Ct. App., No 79A02-1111-CT-1014, 4/30/13 [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], the plaintiffs in this toxic tort case alleged that their children developed a variety of illnesses after a purported exposure to Dursban TC in their home following a pesticide application by the co-defendant pesticide applicator.

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants Dow Chemical Company and Dow Agrosciences (collectively, "Dow") failed to use reasonable care to instruct about the use of the product; warn about its danger; and appropriately test the design of the product. Following discovery, both plaintiffs and Dow filed motions for summary judgment.

On April 13, 2013, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a trial court order granting Dow summary judgment on FIFRA preemption grounds, but granted Dow summary judgment on the basis of the rebuttable presumption in Indiana's product liability statute (the "IPLA") that a product is not defective if it complies with federal or Indiana standards or regulations. Thus, Dow obtained from the IPLA presumption relief that it could not obtain by preemption.

Ind. Code § 34-20-5-1  [enhanced version] provides a rebuttable presumption that a product which caused physical harm is not defective, and the manufacturer or seller of the product is not negligent, if before the sale by the manufacturer, the product "complied with applicable codes, standards, regulations, or specifications established, promulgated, or approved by the United States or by Indiana, or by an agency of the United States or Indiana."

In determining that Dow was entitled to the statutory presumption, the court held that Dursban TC's compliance with both FIFRA and Indiana law had a significant impact under IPLA's consumer expectation-based product liability regime because the risk of harm had been evaluated by agencies with the duty of monitoring the effects of Dursban TC. Furthermore, Dursban TC's labeling and warnings had been approved by experts.

On the basis of this ruling, the appellate court determined that the trial court correctly granted Dow summary judgment motion on plaintiffs' failure to warn claims
 

This decision is significant because Dow was able to obtain through the use of the statutory presumption the same end result that it would have obtained had the appellate court found that the plaintiff's claims were subject to preemption. Other states, including New Jersey, have similar provisions in their statutes in varying contexts.  In New Jersey, the New Jersey Product Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 et seq., specifically provides an evidentiary presumption in the favor of drug manufacturers against failure-to-warn claims:

"If the warning or instruction given in connection with a drug or device or food additive has been approved or prescribed by the federal Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, 52 Stat. 1040, 21 U.S.C. Sec. 301 et seq., ... rebuttable presumption shall arise that the warning or instruction is adequate."

Thus, product liability practitioners, in both the FDA and FIFRA contexts, should be mindful of the importance of developing evidence in discovery and at trial concerning the regulatory approval process and the  evaluations performed by the agency of the appropriateness of the product warnings, directions for use, and of the product's safety and efficacy.
 

For more cutting edge commentary on developing issues, visit Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by William A. Ruskin of Epstein Becker & Green.

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