Supreme Court Protects Consumer Rights in Wyeth v. Levine
Today, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by the prescription drug industry that having their labels approved by the Food and Drug Administration should be a shield from state law tort liability. In a rousing victory for consumers of prescription drugs, the Supreme Court rendered a decision preserving consumer rights to access the courts when injured physically or financially by prescription drugs.
In the case Wyeth v. Levine, the Court ruled 6 to 3 that the FDA’s approval of a drug label does not preempt consumer’s rights to sue the manufacturer for their failure to warn of knows risks associated with the drug.
The lawsuit was brought by Diane Levine, a musician from Vermont who while suffering from a migraine was given the anti-nausea drug Phenergan. Her physician’s assistant did so in a manner that caused the drug to contact her arteries, which caused gangrene and resulted in the loss of her arm. Ms. Levine sued and settled with her doctor. She also sued the drug’s Manufacturer, Wyeth. In its defense, Wyeth argued that the FDA’s approval of the label under federal law preempted Ms. Levine’s rights under state law, but lost. After a 5-day trial, a Vermont jury concluded that the drug maker did not adequately warn of the known risks of gangrene associated with the use of the drug, and awarded Ms. Levine $7.4 million.
After losing in appeals all the way up to Vermont’s Supreme Court, Phenergran’s manufacturer, Wyeth appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court accepted the case, and addressed the issue
In today’s decision, the Court decided that there was no preemption, and found in favor of Ms. Levine.
whether federal law preempts Levine’s claim that Phenergan’s label did not contain an adequate warning about using the IV-push method of administration.
The Court first noted that it was not impossible for the drug maker to comply with both state law and federal requirements in preparing the drug’s label. The court concluded that the drug maker could have added warnings to the label at any time to reflect the risks of gangrene that had occurred to over twenty people since the labeling was approved by FDA. Wyeth had incorrectly argued that the federal regulations prohibited their changes to the label, because they must have been based on “newly acquired information….” The Court countered that Wyeth was incorrect, and that they could have added warnings to reflect the 19 amputations that had arisen from Phenergan’s use before Ms. Levine’s case.
The Court also concluded that Wyeth suffered from a “more fundamental misunderstanding” about the duty to warn consumers of the risks of prescription drugs. The Court noted that
Wyeth suggests that the FDA, rather than the manufacturer, bears primary responsibility for drug labeling. Yet through many amendments to the FDCA and to FDA regulations, it has remained a central premise of federal drug regulation that the manufacturer bears responsibility for the content of its label at all times. It is charged both with crafting an adequate label and with ensuring that its warnings remain adequate as long as the drug is on the market.
Wyth also argued that the Ms. Levine’s lawsuit should be preempted because it interferes with “Congress’s purpose to entrust an expert agency to make drug labeling decisions that strike a balance between competing objectives.” The Court rejected this argument as being both out of line with the intent of Congress, and as based on “an overbroad view of agency’s power to pre-empt state law.”
On the first point, the Court notes that “[i]f Congress thought state-law suits posed an obstacle to its objectives, it surely would have enacted an express preemption provision at some point during the FDCA’s 70-year history” like it did with a 1976 amendment allowing “express pre-emption … for medical devices….”
The Court also spoke to the FDA’s role in the preemption debate, especially it’s position in favor preemption announced in the preamble to the 2006 regulations that redesigned the format and content requirements for prescription drugs. The Court also assessed how much weight to give an agency position that “state law is an obstacle to achieving its statutory objectives….” The Court found that in cases lacking express authority by Congress, the deference given to an agency “depends on its thoroughness, consistency, and persuasiveness.” Based on this, the Court decided that FDA’s position “does not merit deference.”
First, the Court pointed out a glaring procedural lapse by FDA in adopting the position that their regulations and approval of drug label preempts state law. In proposing the draft rule in 2000, the FDA had stated that the rule would “not contain policies that have federalism implications or that preempt State law.”
Despite this, FDA adopted a position in favor of preemption upon publishing the final rule in 2006. FDA did so “without offering States or other interested parties notice or opportunity for comment….” As a consequence, the Supreme concluded that “[t]he agency’s views on state law are inherently suspect in light of this procedural failure.”
The Court also noted that the FDA position on preemption “is at odds with … Congress’s purposes, and it reverses the FDA’s own longstanding position….” The Court summarized the history of FDA’s relationship to state law, noting that
the FDA traditionally regarded state law as a complementary form of drug regulation. The FDA has limited resources to monitor the 11,000 drugs on the market,and manufacturers have superior access to information about their drugs, especially in the postmarketing phase as new risks emerge.
The Court also stated that
State tort suits uncover unknown drug hazards and provide incentives for drug manufacturers to disclose safety risks promptly. They also serve a distinct compensatory function that may motivate injured persons to come forward with information. Failure-to-warn actions, in particular, lend force to the FDCA’s premise that manufacturers, not the FDA, bear primary responsibility for their drug labeling at all times. Thus, the FDA long maintained that state law offers an additional, and important, layer of consumer protection that complements FDA regulation.12 The agency’s 2006 preamble represents a dramatic change in position.
We recognize this decision as an important victory for consumers, and we applaud the Court for this decision.
We hope to post more details on this decision, and its potential impact on our other lawsuits, soon.
You can read the full decision at