Supreme Court Decides Levine v. Wyeth

The Supreme Court has issued its decision in the much-anticipated Levine preemption case.

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall that Wyeth manufactures the anti-nausea drug Phenergan. After a clinician injected plaintiff Levine with Phenergan by the “IV push” method, whereby a drug is injected directly into a patient’s vein, the drug entered Levine’s artery, she developed gangrene, and doctors amputated her forearm. Levine brought a state law damages action, alleging, inter alia, that Wyeth had failed to provide an adequate warning about the significant risks of administering Phenergan by the IV-push method. The jury determined that Levine’s injury would not have occurred if Phenergan’s label included an adequate warning, and it awarded damages for her pain and suffering, substantial medical expenses, and loss of her livelihood as a musician. The trial court rejected Wyeth’s argument that Levine’s failure-to-warn claims were pre-empted by federal law because Phenergan’s labeling had been approved by FDA. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed.


Today, the Supreme Court affirmed, 6-3, J. Stevens writing for the majority, holding that federal law does not pre-empt Levine’s claim that Phenergan’s label did not contain an adequate warning about the IV-push method of administration. The argument that Levine’s state law claims are pre-empted because it is impossible for Wyeth to comply with both the state law duties underlying those claims and its federal labeling duties was rejected. Although a manufacturer generally may change a drug label only after the FDA approves a supplemental application, the agency’s “changes being effected” (CBE) regulation permits certain preapproval labeling changes that add or strengthen a warning to improve drug safety. Pursuant to the CBE regulation, Wyeth could have unilaterally added a stronger warning about IV-push administration, said the Court, as there was no good evidence that the FDA would ultimately have rejected such a labeling change. Wyeth’s reading of the CBE regulation and its assertion that unilaterally changing the Phenergan label would have violated federal law governing unauthorized distribution and misbranding of drugs are based on the “fundamental misunderstanding” that the FDA, rather than the manufacturer, bears primary responsibility for drug labeling.

The Court also rejected Wyeth’s argument that requiring it to comply with a state law duty to provide a stronger warning would interfere with Congress’ purpose of entrusting an expert agency with drug labeling decisions, because it relies on an overbroad view of an agency’s power to preempt state law. The history of the FDCA shows that Congress did not intend to pre-empt state law failure to warn actions, said the majority. The preamble to the 2006 FDA regulation declaring that state law failure to warn claims threaten the FDA’s statutorily prescribed is merely an agency’s assertion that state law is an obstacle to achieving its statutory objectives. The weight the Court accords the agency’s explanation of state law’s impact on the federal scheme depends on its thoroughness, consistency, and persuasiveness. Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U. S. 134. Under this standard, the FDA’s 2006 preamble did not merit much deference, said the Court. It was limited in light of the FDA’s failure to offer interested parties notice or opportunity for comment on the preemption question; it is at odds with the available evidence of Congress’ purposes; and it reverses the FDA’s own longstanding position that state law is a complementary form of drug regulation.

Quick reactions: The Court was able to get around some facts that made the case appear strong for Wyeth, noting the findings below that that a stronger warning would have made a factual difference (getting around the issues of possible medical malpractice), and that this was indeed a failure to warn and not a duty to contraindicate case. Second, it seems that congressional intent is the touchstone of not only express preemption, but also implied preemption. Third, the presumption against preemption, which some argued really applies only in express cases, also applies to implied preemption cases. Fourth, the Court recognized that some state-law claims might well frustrate the achievement of congressional objectives, but “this is not the case." Defendants will have to carefully explore that opening, develop a robust regulatory record, and see where that may take them.
 

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