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Skill v. Martinez

decided: May 10, 1982.

MARGARET SKILL AND ARTHUR J. SKILL, JR., HUSBAND AND WIFE
v.
G. B. MARTINEZ, M.D., ROBERT RENZA, M.D., AND ORTHO PHARMACEUTICAL CO. ORTHO PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY, APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

Before Aldisert, Weis and Becker, Circuit Judges.

Author: Aldisert

Opinion OF THE COURT

Ortho Pharmaceutical Company appeals from an adverse judgment entered on a jury verdict in a diversity case tried under New Jersey law and asserts three contentions for reversing the trial court: that the trial court improperly instructed the jury in the absence of its counsel, that plaintiffs' counsel improperly made repeated references to an alleged duty of Ortho to warn the public directly and to Ortho's alleged failure to heed the Federal Drug Administration's required patient warning, and that counsel improperly referred to new precautions taken by appellant subsequent to 1976. We find no reversible error and we affirm.

Appellee Margaret Skill took Ortho-Novum, an oral contraceptive manufactured by the appellant, from 1969 until August 1976. She suffered a cerebral vascular accident, or a stroke, in January 1977. Alleging that ingestion of Ortho-Novum together with cigarette smoking had caused her stroke, Mrs. Skill sued Ortho under a theory of products liability, Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 402A.*fn1 The case was tried for three weeks before a jury, and, based on answers to special interrogatories, Ortho was held liable to the extent of 35 percent of appellee's damages.

Appellant's first contention arose out of the following operative facts: The jury began deliberations in the late afternoon following the judge's charge and later were dismissed for the night. They resumed deliberations at 9:20 a. m. the following day. Appellant's counsel was not present in court because of car trouble but twice telephoned the court explaining the reason for her delay. At 9:55 a. m. the jury submitted a note to the court, inquiring "What is Ovulen-21? Is this a birth control pill or does it control ovulation?"*fn2 With plaintiff's counsel present, and in the absence of counsel for Ortho, the court responded in writing: "This is just another birth control pill that has nothing to do with this case." Subsequent to the arrival of appellant's counsel, at about 11:25 a. m. Ortho lodged an objection to the court's response, whereupon the court ruled: "I am not at this time going to bring the jury back here at 11:25 in response to a note they gave me at five minutes to 10, an hour and a half ago, because I think it opens up a whole new bag." The jury's inquiry and the court's response were not preserved.

Except for an entry in Mrs. Skill's medical record from approximately two years before her stroke, the only references in the record to Ovulen-21 appear in the following cross-examination of Mrs. Skill:

Question: Is it true that at the time he prescribed a one month course on January 15, 1975, of Ovulen for you, Ovulen?

Answer: I think he gave me a six-month prescription but then my menstrual cycle, when it didn't start, then he gave me something else.

Question: I have his record. One month, Ovulen-21. Did you go out and fill a prescription for a drug called Ovulen-21, did you take that pill?

Answer: Was that the first or second time I saw him?

Question: First time.

Answer: I guess ...


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