The Bush Administration’s attempt to provide complete immunity to the drug industry ended today with a 6-3 vote of the United States Supreme Court. (We previously explored the Bush Administration’s attempt to use the preemption doctrine improperly here and here.) The Court has now issued its decision in Wyeth v. Levine, ruling that patients injured by a drug can sue the drug’s manufacturer for damages, even if the FDA had approved the drug to be marketed. The decision upholds a $6.7m verdict in favor of a Vermont musician who had her arm amputated when Wyeth’s Phenergan, an anti-nausea drug, entered an artery and caused gangrene. The manufacturer claimed that it was entitled to complete immunity from suit based on the FDA’s approval, and that any state claims should be preempted.
This opinion completes a trio of Court decisions on the preemption doctrine. The first, Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. v. Good, established that state products liability suits were preempted by federal medical device regulations unless there were other FDA violations. The second, Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, established that state claims based on unfair trade practices could be asserted against cigarette manufacturers even though cigarette labeling is regulated by the FTC.
Today’s decision in Wyeth v. Levine is an essential one because the FDA is not able to ascertain before marketing all the risks of a drug or errors in labeling. When there is negligence by the manufacturers, the safeguard of the courts is needed to protect consumers fully. If the FDA were the only safeguard in the system, and there were no checks-and-balances provided by the courts, consumers would unquestionably be at greater risk. There is no doubt that the Court’s decision today was the correct one.