Crusading Judge Takes Over Taxotere Products Liability Litigation

Chief Judge Kurt Engelhardt
Chief Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt

Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt, who courageously investigated the New Orleans US Attorney’s Office for misconduct in a police murder prosecution, will apply his no-nonsense approach to dozens of mass tort lawsuits against Sanofi S.A. over its chemotherapy drug, Taxotere.

Judge Engelhardt, age 56, has been on the federal bench for 15 years and ascended to Chief Judge in the US Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans in 2015. Previously he has supervised two product liability MDLs:

  • Franck’s Lab. Inc. Product Liability Litigation MDL 2454, which was closed on May 21, 2016, when all the parties settled. The MDL was created in 2013. The lab compounded pharmaceutical products that were contaminated by fungus and toxins, which caused rare eye infections and blindness.
  • FEMA Trailer Products Liability Litigation MDL 1873, which was closed on October 26, 2015, after three waves of settlements. Companies that manufactured mobile homes for the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina agreed to pay $2.6 million to resolve claims that the mobile homes emitted formaldehyde

Engelhardt will supervise the new MDL No. 2740, In Re: Taxotere (Docetaxel) Products Liability Litigation consisting of 33 actions pending in 16 districts. The panel also has been notified of 56 related actions pending in 25 districts.

The plaintiffs charge that the Taxotere breast cancer drug causes unexpected, permanent and disfiguring hair loss in women. Although hair loss is a common temporary side effect of chemotherapy drugs, permanent alopecia is not. The lawsuits allege that Sanofi was aware of this possible side effect and failed to warn patients, and that the defendants marketed Taxotere as more effective than similar drugs when other drugs were equally effective without causing permanent hair loss.

“Grotesque Misconduct” in Federal Prosecution

A notorious criminal trial in New Orleans illustrates the importance that the judge places on the integrity of the courts. From 2012-2013 Judge Engelhardt investigated gross misconduct in the US Attorney’s office in New Orleans in its prosecution of five policemen who were charged in the 2005 killing of two people and injury of four others on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. The cops were convicted of civil rights and other charges in 2011.

The judge threw out the convictions in 2013 after determining that three federal prosecutors improperly attacked the judge, the police and defense lawyers in anonymous online postings, and leaked confidential information. Two investigations by the US Attorney’s office — one led by a guilty prosecutor — were cover-ups of “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct,” according to the judge.

“The public must have absolute trust and confidence in this process,” Engelhardt wrote in overturning the verdicts. “Re-trying this case is a very small price to pay in order to protect the validity of the verdict in this case, the institutional integrity of this court and the criminal justice system as a whole.”

The 5th Circuit upheld Judge Engelhardt’s decision in 2015, and the case finally ended on April 20, 2016, when the five Danziger Bridge cops pleaded guilty.

The Fifth Circuit ruled that the prosecutors’ “insidious” cyberbullying created a mob mentality against the defendants. “[p]rejudice here was shown both from this pattern of misconduct and evasion and from other abusive prosecutor actions,” it said. “A miscarriage of justice harms the substantial rights of a defendant, and it may consist of errors and omissions considered for their cumulative effect on the trial proceedings.”

Judge Engelhardt’s skepticism of the Department of Justice was also highlighted in the three-year sentence he imposed on a corrupt local prosecutor, St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel Jr. An FBI agent had sent the judge a 31-page letter about ethical lapses in the Justice Department. Engelhardt refused to release the letter but said it was “particularly interesting (and troubling, to say the least).”

The Justice department had ended an investigation into serious allegations that he traded leniency in court for sex from defendants, but let him plead guilty to obstruction of justice. Judge Engelhardt gave Morel the maximum sentence allowed.

Recently he sentenced once-fugitive real estate financier Robert Durst to 7 years and 1 month on a weapons charge that cleared the path for him to face murder charges in California. Durst will serve more than 4 ½ times the maximum under federal guidelines based on a plea deal with prosecutors in Houston, Manhattan and Orleans Parish not to prosecute him on a variety of offenses.

Cited for excellence

As an MDL judge, Engelhardt can be expected to be an efficient stickler for deadlines and details. In 2004 he was appointed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist to serve on the Judicial Conference Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, where he served two terms, which may be beneficial in the MDL case management. His work on the Judiciary Commission has been cited for its excellence by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

On the bench, had actually has few criminal case opinions. Most of his rulings focus on insurance coverage disputes, contract actions, legal malpractice and immigration.

In the 2,059 opinions that he’s written since 2002, Judge Engelhardt cites frequently to the 5th Circuit, and often relies on deposition and trial testimony to support his decisions. He writes matter-of-fact and direct opinions and doesn’t stray from the issues of the case.

In scheduling order dates, he does not permit waivers from the dates absent substantive notice to the court by timely motion.

In personal injury cases, he tends to rule in favor of summary judgment defendants where there is any question as to causation or future damages for injuries. In personal injury cases where remand is requested, prior settlement language as to co-defendants is strictly interpreted as to who remains in the case.

Prior to becoming a judge he handled commercial litigation disputes over contracts and insurance coverage disputes. He practiced at Hailey, McNamara, Hall, Larrman & Papale, an insurance defense firm in Metarie, LA. 

The Hailey firm does not appear to have been involved in representing any pharma or drug device clients, there is a brief reference to products liability defense work in the practice summary, but no cases listed to date.

 


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