A Detailed Look at Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories

by tylercook on September 18, 2013

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Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories, 26 Cal. 3d 588 (1980) was a precedence setting case decided before the Supreme Court of California on March 20, 1980. The case set forth the legal concept known as market share liability, an apportionment of damages for the liabilities of all parties associated with a product that causes harm to the public.

Introduction of the Case

The case involved a suit brought by Judith Sindell against eleven separate drug companies for damages she and other plaintiffs suffered as a result of the administration of the drug diethylstilbesterol or DES, a synthetic form of female estrogen. The drug was commonly prescribed to women between 1940 and 1971 in relationship to their pregnancies. Unfortunately, the drug was linked to high instances of breast cancer among the women who took the drug, as well as adverse health effects found in the children of pregnant women who took the drug.

In 1971 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed that he drug DES caused a form of cervical and vaginal cancer known as clear cell adenocarcinoma and that the drug interfered with the endocrine system (regulator of the production of hormones in the body), causing various birth defects. Sindell was a California woman who developed breast cancer as a result of her mother’s use of the drug while she was pregnant. She sought compensatory damages from not only the manufacturer of the drug (Abbott Laboratories) but also from the companies that marketed and sold DES as a safe drug.

Issues Decided by the Court

The issues involved in Sindell v. Abbott included that of stranding for the defendant, who never used DES but arguably suffered from its use and consequences as deemed by the FDA. The suit was brought against up to eleven different marketers of the drug, including Rexall Drug Company. The suit asserted that the companies, jointly and individually, were liable for damages caused to the women taking the drug and children born from the pregnancies.

The second cause of action asserted by Sindell and her co-plaintiff Maureen Rogers (also impacted by the effects of DES) was that the defendants jointly were responsible for colluding to promote, market, test, and sell the product, relying on each other’s tests and information to make claims regarding its safety when in fact the drug was not safe. Additional causes of action included strict liability, implied and expressed warranties regarding the product’s safety, and other violations committed by the defendants that resulted in harm to the plaintiffs.

Impact of the Court’s Ruling

The impact of the 4-3 ruling in Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories was the development of the market share liability doctrine. Since Sindell never used DES directly but was impacted by its use indirectly, by all rights her claim should have never received consideration by the court. (The majority opinion wrote, “Should we require that plaintiff identify the manufacturer which supplied the DES used by her mother or that all DES manufacturers be joined in the action, she would effectively be precluded from any recovery.”)

Since the court was willing to establish that she in fact had grounds for suit against not only the manufacturer but those who marketed and sold the product, the case established that a plaintiff did not necessarily have to identify specifically the manufacturer of a product (if unable to do so) and may be eligible to receive proportionate compensation from all manufacturers of the product, particularly if they benefitted from the harm their product caused.


Xavier Rutherford is a freelance writer who concentrates on Market Share Liability cases, Personal Injury, Criminal Defense, Domestic Violence cases, Banking and other areas as well.




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