Pharmaceutical companies play a critical role in our lives, providing us with medical necessities that can help to improve and maintain our health, along with our overall quality of life. Of course, as in any industry, carelessness and improper manufacturing is always a possibility.
When these instances do happen, it can result in massive damage to those involved with the products or medications’ faultiness. A prime example would be 3M Company’s dual-ended combat arms earplugs, which were utilized by service members and veterans to protect their ears from sounds associated with gunshots and explosions.
However, the earplugs’ defectiveness rendered them unable to fulfill the desired purpose, leaving users exposed to medical consequences like prolonged buzzing or ringing or general hearing difficulty. Accusing 3M of knowing about the defects, over 300,000 wearers have sued the company in a legal battle that’s now in its fourth year.
If you find yourself in a situation of having used a faulty pharmaceutical product, you might understandably believe you’re immediately entitled to compensation. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case explained McSweeney Langevin, LLC attorney Rachel Richardson, who has worked with thousands of clients engaged in pharmaceutical and consumer product litigation.
“In order to have a cause of action that can be brought in any court, you need to have some sort of an injury. Using a product that might be recalled or something along those lines doesn’t necessarily mean you have an injury, that you could be compensated for,” Richardson said.
Richardson pointed to the contaminant medication Zantac and its lawsuit as a prime example of injury specificity and how it affects claims. “The injury in the Zantac litigation that we’re actively pursuing is cancer that has been linked to Zantac. If you took Zantac for some sort of extended period of time, but you haven’t developed cancer and it’s been five or six years since you took the product, chances are that even if you do develop cancer, it probably isn’t because of Zantac at that point.”
When it comes to assessing a specific case type, Richardson explained the first priority is knowing what the product is alleged to have caused. From there, they continue to dissect the “how’s” and “if’s.” “We have to know how the FDA approved the product [or if it] was approved by the FDA.”
“We also need to know what sort of issues with preemption could arise. A lot of that has to do with how products are approved through the FDA. [We] definitely want to know if the product’s recalled, what classification of recall it’s in, and then the types of injuries that people have had from it,” Richardson said. “Obviously, the more serious the injuries, the more likely we are to take on that type of case.” ”
With individual claimants, meanwhile, Richardson inquires into how long the client has used the product in question, when the product was implanted if it’s a medical device, the injuries they’ve had since then, the severity of those injuries, and how those injuries have affected the clients’ lives. The answers to those kinds of questions are crucial in deciding whether a client’s claim possesses any possible sort of legs moving forward.
“We need to know all this [information] because we need to know if it’s been too long and we can’t pursue because the statute of limitations will have been run at that point, which is always really unfortunate because how is an individual person who just trusted their doctors supposed to know that what happened to them wasn’t normal? It was a situation where a company took advantage and had this defective product on the market, but [the client] had no idea,” she said.
With the intensity and immensity of some of the cases Richardson and her cohorts take on, it’s important to her to make sure that her clients fully understand what kind of legal procedures they’re about to enter into, as battling a pharmaceutical company can be a whole different kind of experience for many. “I always like to make sure the clients understand that this isn’t just your typical, personal injury claim because you’re dealing with a company and you’re not the only person that was injured from this product.”
Still, Richardson explained that while the idea of these lawsuits may be intimidating, it shouldn’t stop those who have had to carry the painful burden of the effects of the improperly manufactured medication or product. “If somebody was injured from something, they absolutely are entitled to pursue a claim against the manufacturer to try to get compensated for that wrong that was done to them.”
While Richardson understands the necessity for the legal system to have these varying restrictions of entitlement, she also deeply shares compassion and sincere understanding for those who have been hurt through defects, regardless of whether or not they’re able to pursue compensation.
“I like the idea that we can trust our doctors and understand that we’re going to be taken care of if we do have medical concerns, but unfortunately, there are products and pharmaceuticals out there that aren’t great for you, and you can end up being prescribed or implanted with some of these products and they can harm you,” she said.
“A lot of these people have been very emotionally hurt by that fact, so it’s always a delicate subject to talk to clients about their litigation, so you always have to keep in mind that they have feelings about how they’ve been wronged.”
However, with that compassion comes the necessity to build a relationship and ensure that both parties of the attorney-client dynamic have a sense of assurance in each other. “There’s definitely a level of trust that’s needed. I think that it helps I can explain mass torts to people in a way that they can understand, so I’m not just talking over them.”
Of course, one’s personality and prior experience are also important in how one can approach the challenge of combining professionalism with empathy and communication. “I think everybody just has their own styles. I have worked a lot of customer service jobs in my life, and I think that really shows in how I deal with clients on a day-to-day basis. I’m probably way more customer service-like than the average attorney.”
“I really like to make people feel like they’re heard. I understand that sometimes some of the stuff that they want to feel heard on isn’t necessarily relevant to their claim, but I feel like I’ve found a way to explain that to people and still make them feel like they were heard.”
For both Richardson and her client’s family, due to the lengthy timeframes these cases witness and the circumstances involved, more hardships can come if the claimant passes away before a resolution is reached. “It does happen pretty frequently,” she explained, but emphasized that doesn’t stop the attorneys from pursuing rightful compensation. “In those situations, we always reach out to the next of kin and see if they want to continue the claim, and then we do what we can.”
Richardson likes to believe that through her work of representing clients and bringing them the compensation they deserve, pharmaceuticals will put more time and diligence into their manufacturing and testing of products. “That’s the entire purpose of the job that I do. I want people to have safe products, and I don’t think it’s okay when large corporations take advantage of people just to make a profit.”
“When they have the tools and resources to fix situations when they know that their products are defective or could cause harm, and they just don’t because it’s cheaper to continue on, or they’re making so much money on it that they just continue to produce said-defective products or pharmaceuticals, [it’s wrong].”
Certainly, claimant victories help not only strike a sense of hard-hitting realization regarding faulty processes or products within pharmaceuticals but bring attention to these illegal or negligent actions to the public eye.
“I know that the 3M earplugs litigation is something that 3M is afraid of because it’s such a large litigation. There are over 300,000 plaintiffs. So far there’s been 16 trials, and a lot of them resulted in very large multi-million dollar verdicts in favor of those plaintiffs,” Richardson said. “I know that’s something that some companies are afraid of, it just depends on the situation. It depends [on] how mass-produced these products were, what their profit margins were, and what kind of injuries they’re talking about.”
Richardson is part of a legal industry that is seeing an increase in women attorneys, with the American Bar Association (ABA) reporting that the percentage of women lawyers increased from 33% in 2011 to 37% in 2021. However, with the field still primarily dominated by men, she emphasized her belief that the pressure for women to succeed helps them to become more focused and detail-oriented.
That kind of determination and productivity has played a recurring role throughout Richardson’s career. Instead of opting for a path assumed by others to be more suitable, she embraced playing a trailblazer. “I decided in eighth grade that I wanted to be a lawyer, and I stuck with it. There are no lawyers in my family, I grew up in a small town, and everything in my life said that I should be in a science or math-related field. I decided to do my own thing.”
Richardson acknowledged she couldn’t have made it where she is today without the help of her late mentor, Jonathan Mencel. While Mencel passed away from COVID-19 last December, Richardson continues to embrace his teachings on product liabilities and urged potential mass tort hopefuls to find a teacher they could take away crucial lessons and experience from. “If you can find somebody that will take you under their wing, that’s the most helpful situation.”
Richardson explained that kind of relationship building in her field of law is especially important because of the smaller-knit communities that are present. “[You] definitely want to make sure that your interactions with others are very respectful because you will be seeing these same people over and over again.”
“Even if it’s a defense attorney, I feel like some people have the mentality where they’re ready to fight at all times, but you’re probably going to be working with this person in multiple litigations, so it’s [important] to have a civil relationship.”
To learn more about McSweeney Langevin, LLC and the practice areas they cover, or to contact Richardson, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.