FDA Plans to Use Park Doctrine to Ratchet Up Enforcement Efforts – Corporate Officers Can be Held Strictly Liable for Violations of the FFDCA

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Mark Mansour, Partner, Bryan Cave, LLP

Amid continuing debate about the timing and shape of the Senate’s food safety bill (the House passed a version in July 2009), comes a new issue that affects companies in the food, drug, device and cosmetic industries.

Several months ago, FDA Deputy Chief Counsel for Litigation Eric Blumberg told industry representatives at the FDLI Annual Conference that the agency is prepared to dust off the three-decade-old “Park Doctrine” to augment FDA’s continuing efforts to ratchet up its enforcement profile. The doctrine stems from the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975). In principle, it allows the government to pursue misdemeanor charges against a corporate officer for alleged violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, regardless of whether the officer is aware of the existence of a violation, as long as the officer holds a position of responsibility so that that individual could have initiated preventive or corrective action and, for whatever reason, failed to do so.

Park represents a strict liability standard, so no warning letter is required. FDA need only request that the Department of Justice file charges based on FDA’s conclusion that an officer is guilty of misconduct, which is effectively defined as failing to know what FDA believes one should have known. In sum, what an executive does not know can be more than harmful.

The scale of punishment for misdemeanors ranges from one year in prison and/or a maximum fine of $100,000 for each count, ranging to much higher where injury or death are involved. Courts can impose mandatory prison sentences, and if FDA believes a substantial risk of injury or death is involved, judges can increase the length of prison sentences.

At a time when corporate resources are stretched, the entire spectrum of regulatory compliance issues has become every bit as critical for senior management and counsel as the other bet-the-company issues that confront each company on a day-to-day basis.

Mark Mansour is a partner in the firm, Bryan Cave, LLP

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