Federal appeals court decision in a Teva case is latest in debate over using state or federal courts

A decision this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is the latest in a debate about whether multiple lawsuits alleging harm to patients from the same pharmaceutical product should be heard in state courts or federal courts.

The 2-1 opinion by the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, which conservatives generally view as much too liberal, favored Judith Romo, other plaintiffs and their attorneys and against Teva Pharmaceuticals USA. Teva is based in Israel, but its Americas headquarters is in North Wales, Montgomery County.

Conservatives and business groups hope the decision in Romo v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA will eventually lead to a Supreme Court hearing to settle the issue. With a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, business groups like their chances in that venue.

Romo's suit was was one of 26 cases pending before a federal district court in California alleging injuries related to the ingestion of propoxyphene, an ingredient found in the brand-name painkillers Darvocet and Darvon and the generic versions. Another batch of cases are pending in Kentucky. Propoxyphene was used to treat mild to moderate pain from 1957 through 2010, when the drugs were taken off the market because of the Food & Drug Administration’s safety concerns. Teva sold generic versions of the drug and had wanted the cases moved from California state courts to a California federal court.

Besides Teva, the case has local implications for many people, law firms and others involved in litigation in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Though it can be dramatically different when the issue is civil rights, when the issue is harm from big pharmaceutical companies, plaintiffs attorneys like local and state courts because they think their clients will eventually get paid more money by local judges and local juries. That is part of why the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas gets so many cases related to pharmaceutical products that plaintiffs say caused harm.

While this idea applies with a single plaintiff with a unique complaint, it often applies when many plaintiffs have a similar complaint.

As you might guess, drug companies, other businesses and their corporate attorneys don't like local and state courts in these types of situations. They would prefer cases that involve many similar cases be "remanded," to borrow the legal term, to federal courts.

Philadelphia, of course, has a branch of the federal court system and jurors are still likely to come from the region, but businesses generally prefer the federal system.

That has been especially true since passage of a 2005 law, signed by President George W. Bush, that pushes cases to federal courts when 100 or more plaintiffs have the same basic issue and there is some consideration of consolidating the work.

Legal disputes since then have centered on how much consolidation is requested and whether that should send a case to a federal court.

The Ninth Circuit said in the Romo v. Teva case that the lawsuits can remain in California state courts, as requested by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The Ninth Circuit opinion said the California case had different circumstances than a previous decision by the Seventh Circuit, which previously ruled in a case involving Abbott Laboratories that a batch of suits should go to the federal court.

Though disappointed by the Ninth Circuit decision, business groups, including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, hope the conflict between the circuits will lead the Supreme Court to review the issue.