While much preemption focus has been on Levine v. Wyeth, including by posts here at MassTortDefense, other preemption decisions are winding there way through the federal appellate courts. Defendants Pfizer Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, and Apotex Inc. last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that failure to warn claims are impliedly preempted by federal law based on the regulatory history of the antidepressants at issue. Colacicco v. Apotex Inc., 521 F.3d 253 (3d Cir. 2008), Petition for Certiorari Filed, 77 USLW 3229 (Oct 02, 2008).

Readers of MassTortDefense know that plaintiff Colacicco filed suit after his wife allegedly committed suicide while under treatment with a generic equivalent to Paxil. The district court for the E.D. of Pennsylvania found preemption. The appeal was consolidated with a contrasting preemption decision in the McNellis case out of the district court in New Jersey, involving Zoloft. The Third Circuit’s decision was the first by a federal appeals court to address the preemptive effect of prescription drug law and regulation since the FDA had expanded on its guidance on the issue.

Plaintiffs sought certiorari, asking the Court to review the Third Circuit’s decision; alternatively, they asked the court to hold the petition pending resolution of Levine, argued last month. But the Court should do neither, the manufacturers argued, and cert should just be denied.

Pfizer Brief

According to Pfizer’s brief, the Third Circuit properly determined that plaintiff below McNellis sought a warning about suicidal behavior that conflicted with the federal warning requirements for Zoloft. For more than 15 years, the FDA had considered whether SSRIs were associated with an increased risk of suicidality in adult patients. The agency repeatedly determined that the scientific evidence did not support such a warning.

Pfizer notes there is no disagreement among appellate courts (a well-established basis for Supreme Court review) on preemption in SSRI litigation.  No other federal appeals court has ruled in a contrary way on the preemptive effect of the type of conflict at issue here. The 3d Circuit found preemption based on “the direct, real conflict” between plaintiff’s claim that New Jersey law required a warning about adult suicidality and the FDA’s requirement—based on its repeated finding of no reasonable evidence of such an association—that only the FDA’s approved warning be given. McNellis relied on the Court’s decision in Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51 (2002) to argue that the FDA merely failed to act with respect to suicidality warnings, and that a federal agency’s failure to act does not create a federal requirement triggering preemption. But the FDA “regulated with great specificity and care” in repeatedly finding no reasonable association between SSRIs and suicidality, and by requiring the manufacturer to provide the specified warnings.

As to the claim that the manufacturers failed to disclose information to the FDA, defendants assert that the lower court correctly found that this claim should be presented to the FDA first. In addition, Buckman preemption likewise prevents plaintiffs from evading a definitive FDA regulatory record by arguing that the FDA was somehow defrauded; the appellate court found that the preemption doctrine of Buckman v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001), bars claims that the manufacturer withheld information from the FDA.

Direct Conflict

Arguing against even staying the petition until Levine is decided, Pfizer said the issues in the cases are distinct, asserting that the 3d Circuit’s decision in this case is correct regardless of whether Levine is affirmed or reversed. Respondents point out what they see as distinct regulatory facts in that case, involving contraindication claims.

Brief for Apotex, GlaxoSmithKline

Apotex, a maker of generic Paxil, and GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of brand-name Paxil, also argued against review. Like Pfizer, they contended the 3d Circuit properly concluded that the FDA’s repeated rejection of suicidality warnings preempts plaintiff Colacicco’s claims.

The brief also argued that state law failure to warn claims challenging FDA-approved labeling should be preempted. To allow this sort of tort action to continue would place state-law juries in the position of second-guessing FDA decisions regarding the proper warnings for drugs. Lay juries should not be able to undermine the agency’s expertise by second-guessing the agency’s warning decisions. At its base, Colacicco’s argument against preemption is the theory that a court, applying state law, has authority to decide whether GSK could have under federal law, and should have under state law, unilaterally added a suicidality warning to the Paxil labeling, despite FDA regulation.

Courts do not share concurrent jurisdiction with the FDA over drug labeling; there should be no preemption test that would require a court to delve deeply into internal FDA decision making. Specifically, the lower courts do not share jurisdiction with the FDA over the CBE regulation, which is the basis for the “could have, should have” argument, Apotex and GSK both wrote. FDA has made clear that CBE supplements fall squarely within its regulatory jurisdiction. Under Colacicco’s theory, the lower court would be authorized to decide, without reference to the FDA, that a CBE supplement adding the putative warning could have been submitted, that the added warning would have been consistent with the FDCAct, and that FDA would have approved it. Thus, the lower courts would become “shadow” FDAs. That is not the scheme adopted by Congress for drug regulation.