The Supreme Court last week reversed the First Circuit decision in Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, No. 12-142 (U.S., 6/24/13).
Readers will recall that in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 131 S. Ct. 2567 (2011), the Supreme Court held that state tort law claims against generic drug manufacturers based on the alleged inadequacy of the drug labeling are preempted; under the Hatch-Waxman Amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, generic drug labeling must be the same as the labeling of the reference-listed drug. Because generic drug manufacturers cannot independently change the labeling, state law failure to warn claims are preempted.
Plaintiffs proceeded to hunt for exceptions, ways around the ruling. One of the strategies was to resurrect design defect theories, which traditionally were not a major aspect of most drug plaintiff claims. This case was tried on a design defect theory of liability after the plaintiff’s failure to warn claims were dismissed prior to trial and the district court rejected the generic manufacturer’s preemption defense on the design claim. The jury found for plaintiff, and defendant appealed, arguing that just as the manufacturer cannot alter the label, once a drug—whether generic or brand-name—is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to the qualitative or quantitative formulation of the drug product, including active ingredients, or in the specifications provided in the approved new drug application. In Bartlett, the First Circuit held that the plaintiff’s state law theory of liability could nevertheless be reconciled with federal law because, although the generic manufacturer could change neither the design nor the labeling, it could avoid liability if it stopped selling the drug entirely within the state.
The Supreme Court reversed.
New Hampshire imposes design defect liability where the design of the product created a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user. To determine whether a product is “unreasonably dangerous,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court employs a risk/utility approach under which a product is defective as designed if the magnitude of the danger outweighs the utility of the product. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly identified three factors as germane to the risk-utility inquiry: the usefulness and desirability of the product to the public as a whole, whether the risk of danger could have been reduced without significantly affecting either the product’s effectiveness or manufacturing cost, and the presence and efficacy of a warning to avoid an unreasonable risk of harm from hidden dangers or from foreseeable uses.
In the drug context, either increasing the “usefulness” of a product or reducing its “risk of danger” would require redesigning the drug: a drug’s usefulness and its risk of danger are both direct results of its chemical design and, most saliently, its active ingredients. Here, said the Supreme Court, redesign was not possible, as the FDCA requires a generic drug to have the same active ingredients, route of administration, dosage form, strength, as the brand-name drug on which it is based. Given the impossibility of redesigning the drug, the only way for the defendant to ameliorate the drug’s “risk-utility” profile—and thus to escape liability—was to strengthen the presence and efficacy of the warning in such a way that the warning avoided an unreasonable risk of harm from hidden dangers or from foreseeable uses.
That was, of course, preempted. When federal law forbids an action that state law requires, the state law is “without effect.” Because it is impossible for generic manufacturers to comply with both state and federal law, New Hampshire’s warning-infused design defect cause of action was pre-empted with respect to FDA-approved drugs sold in interstate commerce.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that a defendant could satisfy both laws by paying tort judgments or refraining from selling its product in that particular state. And rejected the “stop-selling” rationale as incompatible with its pre-emption jurisprudence. The Court’s pre-emption cases presume that an actor seeking to satisfy both his federal and state law obligations is not required to cease acting altogether in order to avoid liability. Indeed, if the option of ceasing to act defeated a claim of impossibility, impossibility pre-emption would be all but meaningless. The incoherence of the stop-selling theory becomes plain when viewed through the lens of the previous cases. In every instance in which the Court has found impossibility pre-emption, the direct conflict between federal and state law duties could easily have been avoided if the regulated actor had simply ceased acting.
Interestingly, there is nothing in the Court’s rejection of “stop-selling” limiting it to generic drugs; the rejection seems applicable to all federally regulated products because it’s not based on the FDCA but is an argument “incompatible with our pre-emption jurisprudence.”