Opioids, Roundup and third-party sellers grabbed product liability spotlight in 2021

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The logo of Amazon is seen at the company's logistics center in Bretigny-sur-Orge, near Paris, France, December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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Dec 30 - The past year saw a number of significant decisions for product liability law, as courts grappled with opioids, e-retailers' liability for third party sellers' products, common benefit funds for plaintiffs' lawyers and more. Here are some of the highlights:

AMAZON DEFEATS THIRD-PARTY SELLER LIABILITY IN TEXAS

E-commerce giant Amazon.com in June dodged a lawsuit seeking to hold it liable under Texas law for injuries caused by a third-party seller's product shipped from its warehouse. The ruling put Texas in line with most other states that have considered the issue in a major victory for the company, which has argued it has no responsibility for defective third-party products. The case involved a toddler who suffered esophageal burns after swallowing a battery from a defective remote. Only California courts have held that Amazon may be liable for certain third-party products.

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MIXED RESULTS IN OPIOID LITIGATION

After a year of COVID-related delays, opioid litigation picked up steam in 2021, with mixed results for the parties. Judges were skeptical of the public nuisance legal theory at the heart of most opioid lawsuits, with Oklahoma's top court overturning a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson, and a California judge siding with multiple drugmakers against claims brought by several counties. An Ohio jury, meanwhile, handed opioid plaintiffs one of their first big trial wins in finding major pharmacy chains liable for fueling opioid abuse.

Only a handful of defendants have reached nationwide settlements, and the year's mixed results could mean a long road ahead for the remaining litigation.

PURDUE AND SACKLERS' OXYCONTIN DEAL FALLS THROUGH

While other companies fought opioid claims in court, Purdue Pharma took refuge in bankruptcy. The company made OxyContin, the single drug most widely blamed for the opioid epidemic, and reached a deal to settle a flood of lawsuits that called for $4.5 billion from its former owners, the Sackler family. A federal judge in December torpedoed the deal, however, finding that it improperly shielded the Sacklers from future lawsuits. If the decision survives appeal, it could upend Purdue's plan to reorganize in bankruptcy and open the door to litigation against the family.

SUPREME COURT SUPPORTS BROAD OUT-OF-STATE JURISDICTION

The U.S. Supreme Court in March unanimously ruled that Minnesota and Montana courts could hear lawsuits against Ford Motor Co over car accidents that happened in those states. The ruling rejected the automaker's argument that the state courts lacked jurisdiction because the accidents were not tied to its conduct in the states. The closely watched ruling clarifies that companies may face tort lawsuits in states around the country, regardless of where they are based.

JUDGE BLASTS COMMON BENEFIT FUND REQUEST IN ROUNDUP MDL

The federal judge overseeing multidistrict litigation over Bayer AG's Roundup weedkiller in June issued a scathing order taking lead plaintiffs' lawyers to task for their "breathtaking" request for 8.25% of Roundup-related recoveries in courts around the country, regardless of their connection to the MDL. The request, for a so-called common benefit fund, is a routine one by lead counsel in MDLs, who say fairness demands that they be compensated for work that benefits plaintiffs nationwide. But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria questioned the practice, saying the request pointed to a "an MDL attorney compensation system that seems to have gotten totally out of control," and limited the common benefit fund to 8% of recoveries by MDL plaintiffs.

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.