In December, I promised more detailed comments about In re Vioxx Class Cases (December 15, 2009), decided by the Second Appellate District, Division Three. As promised, I provide more pithy commentary (or blather, as you see fit to classify it). The Court's discussion began with a reminder that is worth repeating. The standard of review on a appeal challenging a trial court's decision to grant or deny certification is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, absent certain specific errors:
“ ‘Because trial courts are ideally situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting group action, they are afforded great discretion in granting or denying certification. . . . "[I]n the absence of other error, a trial court ruling supprted by substantial evidence generally will not be disturbed “unless (1) improper criteria were used [citation]; or (2) erroneous legal assumptions were made [citation].” ’ ”
Slip op., at 14, citing Tobacco II. Next, the Court stated the requisites for class certification. The discussion was the usual stuff, but for one statement regarding predominance of common issues of law or fact: "To determine whether the questions of fact and law at issue in the litigation are common or individual, it is necessary to consider the individual causes of action pleaded, and the issues raised thereby." Slip op., at 15. It is difficult to find any guidance about how to assess predominance. Here, the Court indicates that the analysis proceeds on a cause-of-action by cause-of-action basis.
Turning to the various casues of action, the Court first addressed the claim arising under the CLRA. The Court followed decisions that permit an inference of reliance when a misrepresentation is material:
The language of the CLRA allows recovery when a consumer “suffers damage as a result of” the unlawful practice. This provision “requires that plaintiffs in a CLRA action show not only that a defendant’s conduct was deceptive but that the deception caused them harm.” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) Causation, on a class-wide basis, may be established by materiality. If the trial court finds that material misrepresentations have been made to the entire class, an inference of reliance arises as to the class. (Id. at p. 1292.) This is so because a representation is considered material if it induced the consumer to alter his position to his detriment. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.) That the defendant can establish a lack of causation as to a handful of class members does not necessarily render the issue of causation an individual, rather than a common, one. “ ‘[P]laintiffs [may] satisfy their burden of showing causation as to each by showing materiality as to all.’ ” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) In contrast, however, if the issue of materiality or reliance is a matter that would vary from consumer to consumer, the issue is not subject to common proof, and the action is properly not certified as a class action. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.)
Slip op., at 16.
The Court then discussed claims arising under the UCL. The authority cited by the Court was described in a manner that was fairly favorable to consumers. For example, the Court said, "Consumer class actions under the UCL serve an important role in the enforcement of consumers’ rights." And, as to remedies, the Court observed, "The UCL balances relaxed liability standards with limits on liability." Slip op., at 18. The fraudulent prong of the UCL received a similarly broad construction through the authority noted by the Court:
In order to obtain a remedy for deceptive advertising, a UCL plaintiff need only establish that members of the public were likely to be deceived by the advertising. (Bank of the West v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1254, 1267; Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1290.) The question has arisen as to which members of the public need be likely to be deceived. The law focusses on a reasonable consumer who is a member of the target population. (Lavie v. Proctor & Gamble Co. (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 496, 508.) “Where the advertising or practice is targeted to a particular group or type of consumers, either more sophisticated or less sophisticated than the ordinary consumer, the question whether it is misleading to the public will be viewed from the vantage point of members of the targeted group, not others to whom it is not primarily directed.”
Slip op., at 18. The Court then discussed the countours of the restitution remedy under the UCL. Here, Tobacco was cited, but the Court's summary of the extent of restitution foreshadowed the Court's determination that a means for proving a restitutionary value were lacking:
As to restitution, the UCL provides that “[t]he court may make such orders or judgments . . . as may be necessary to restore to any person in interest any money or property, real or personal, which may have been acquired by means of such unfair competition.”15 (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) This language, providing restitution of funds which “may have been acquired,” has been interpreted to allow recovery without proof that the funds were lost as a result of actual reliance on defendant’s deceptive conduct. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320; Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 450-451; Prata v. Superior Court (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1128, 1144.) While the “may have been acquired” language of Business and Professions Code section 17203 is so broad as to allow restitution without individual proof of injury, it is not so broad as to allow recovery without any evidentiary support. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 663, 697.) The difference between what the plaintiff paid and the value of what the plaintiff received is a proper measure of restitution. (Cortez v. Purolator Air Filtration Products Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 163, 174.) In order to recover under this measure, there must be evidence of the actual value of what the plaintiff received. When the plaintiff seeks to value the product received by means of the market price of another, comparable product, that measure cannot be awarded without evidence that the proposed comparator is actually a product of comparable value to what was received. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 675.)
Slip op., at 19.
Having discussed what must be established for CLRA and UCL claims, the Court then analyzed predominance as to each cause of action. For the CLRA, the Court agreed that reliance/materiality issues could not be resolved on a classwide basis:
The trial court found that the decision to prescribe Vioxx is an individual decision made by a physician in reliance on many different factors, which vary from patient to patient. The trial court quoted from Dr. Silver’s declaration, indicating eight individual factors which a physician must assess in determining whether and what to prescribe for pain.
Slip op., at 22. In reality, this decision is an example of why tort-type issues frequently undermine attempts to certify classes. The Court noted some of the complicated reliance variables:
On appeal, plaintiffs draw this court’s attention to Merck’s alleged common campaign of hiding the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx, arguing that such common misrepresentations support a common inference of reliance. Plaintiffs suggest that Merck hid “an increased risk of death,” associated with Vioxx, and argue, “there can be nothing more material than an increased risk of death.” Plaintiffs’ argument is a vast oversimplification of the matter, and one which overlooks all of the evidence to the contrary on which the trial court relied.
First, evidence indicated that Vioxx did not present “an increased risk of death” compared to traditional NSAIDs for all patients. Traditional NSAIDs killed 16,500 people per year due to gastrointestinal bleeds. For patients with stomach ulcers or other gastrointestinal risk factors, traditional NSAIDs presented a higher risk of death than the risk of cardiovascular death posed by Vioxx. Second, evidence indicated that the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx were not material for all patients. Some patients would still take Vioxx today if it were on the market; some physicians would still prescribe it regardless of risks. Indeed, it cannot be disputed that other drugs pose similar, or even greater, risks of death than Vioxx, but are still in use – because, for some patients, the benefits outweigh the risks. Third, Merck introduced substantial evidence that all physicians are different and obtain their information about prescriptions from myriad sources. For those physicians with a distrust of statements made by the pharmaceutical industry, Merck’s statements could not have been material. For those patients whose TPPs required pre-approval of Vioxx (or would only pay for Vioxx under certain circumstances), the TPP’s decision likely would override any patient or physician reliance on Merck’s statements. Fourth, physicians consider many patient-specific factors in determining which drug to prescribe, including the patient’s history and drug allergies, the condition being treated, and the potential for adverse reactions with the patient’s other medications – in addition to the risks and benefits associated with the drug. When all of these patient-specific factors are a part of the prescribing decision, the materiality of any statements made by Merck to any particular prescribing decision cannot be presumed. All of this evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that whether Merck’s misrepresentations were material, and therefore induced reliance, is a matter on which individual issues prevailed over common issues, justifying denial of class certification with respect to the CLRA claim.
Slip op., at 23-24.
Similar problems with the UCL were then discussed by the Court:
[T]he court specifically found that class damages are not subject to common proof. The court concluded that the monetary value plaintiffs wish to assign to their claim – the difference in price between Vioxx and a generic, non-specific NSAID, implicates a patient-specific inquiry and therefore fails the community of interest test. In short, the trial court rejected the entire premise of plaintiffs’ class action. While the trial court allowed the possibility that plaintiffs could recover for having been exposed to misrepresentations, the trial court concluded that the theory that the entire class was harmed because Vioxx was no more effective, and less safe, than naproxen implicated individual issues of proof.
On appeal, plaintiffs mount a two-pronged challenge to the trial court’s conclusions. First, they argue that they offered sufficient factual evidence that naproxen is a valid comparator to Vioxx. Specifically, they rely on the declaration of their medical expert to the effect that, based on the VIGOR study, Vioxx was, overall, no more effective, and less safe, than generic naproxen. The trial court did not err in rejecting naproxen as a valid class-wide comparator. Defendants introduced substantial evidence that, after Vioxx was withdrawn from the market, most Vioxx patients switched to another COX-2 inhibitor, not a generic NSAID such as naproxen. As this evidence indicates that Vioxx was worth more than naproxen to a majority of class members, it is more than sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that naproxen is not a valid comparator on a class-wide basis.
Plaintiffs’ second argument is that the validity of naproxen as a comparator goes to the merits of the action, and should not be addressed on a motion for class certification. Plaintiffs argue that since the UCL and FAL allow an award of restitution without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury, the trial court should not have been considering the validity of naproxen as a comparator. We do not disagree that a trial court has discretion to order restitution even in the absence of individualized proof of injury. (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 452.) However, in order to obtain class wide restitution under the UCL, plaintiffs need establish not only a misrepresentation that was likely to deceive (Corbett v. Superior Court, supra, 101 Cal.App.4th 649, 670) but the existence of a “measurable amount” of restitution, supported by the evidence. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 698.) The failure of naproxen as a viable class-wide comparator thus defeats the claim for class-wide restitution.
Slip op., 26-27. With accepted reasons for denying certification as to each cause of action, the trial court was affirmed. I skipped one other basis for the Court's decision that a denial of certification was appropriate. The Court found that a typicality problem was created by the interaction with third-party payors. Some TPPs would only pay for Vioxx when other NSAIDs did not work for the patient. Some co-pay situations with flat rate copays rendered the economic comparison argument moot. Generally, the Court noted that the defined class was overbroad, creating a number of problems for itself that could not be reconciled. See, Slip op, at 20-22. Here is yet another example why tort-type issues routinely sink class actions.