Wyeth v. Levine

555 U.S. 555 (2009)

Quick Summary

Diana Levine (plaintiff) sued Wyeth (defendant) after suffering from gangrene due to an injection of Phenergan, leading to amputation. Wyeth claimed that federal approval of the drug’s label preempted Levine’s state-law claim of inadequate warning.

The Supreme Court found no preemption, holding that state-law claims do not undermine the FDA’s role and affirmed the Vermont Supreme Court’s judgment in favor of Levine.

Facts of the Case

Diana Levine (plaintiff), a professional musician, sought treatment for a migraine headache and was administered an injection of Phenergan, a drug manufactured by Wyeth (defendant). Phenergan carries a risk of causing gangrene if injected into an artery, which unfortunately occurred in Levine’s case, leading to the amputation of her forearm. Levine sued Wyeth in Vermont state court, claiming that the warning label on Phenergan was inadequate.

Despite the drug’s FDA-approved label, the Vermont jury found Wyeth liable for failing to provide proper warnings about the dangers of administering Phenergan via the IV-push method.

Wyeth appealed, arguing that Levine’s claims were preempted by federal law, as the FDA had previously determined the drug’s label was sufficient. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, and Wyeth appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Levine was treated with Phenergan and subsequently suffered harm leading to amputation.
  2. Levine filed a lawsuit against Wyeth alleging inadequate labeling.
  3. The trial court ruled in Levine’s favor, finding Wyeth liable.
  4. Wyeth appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.
  5. Wyeth further appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

Whether federal law preempts state-law claims that a drug’s FDA-approved label is inadequate.

Rule of Law

The manufacturer bears responsibility for the content of its drug label at all times and can make certain changes to its label before receiving FDA approval under the “changes being effected” regulation. Federal law does not preempt state-law failure-to-warn claims if there is no direct and positive conflict with federal law.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed whether federal law preempted Levine’s state-law claims. The Court noted that manufacturers could unilaterally strengthen their drug warnings under the CBE regulation without prior FDA approval.

The Court rejected Wyeth’s argument that it was impossible to comply with both state and federal requirements, stating that Wyeth had not attempted to provide a stronger warning that could have prevented Levine’s injury.

The Court also held that Congress did not intend FDA oversight to be the exclusive means of ensuring drug safety. Therefore, Levine’s state-law claims did not stand as an obstacle to federal objectives and were not preempted by federal law.

Conclusion

The judgment of the Vermont Supreme Court was affirmed, allowing state-law claims regarding drug labeling inadequacy to proceed despite federal regulation.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice ALITO, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice SCALIA, dissented, arguing that the case undermines the FDA’s authority and the principle of conflict preemption, leading to bad law from tragic facts.

Key Takeaways

  1. Federal law does not prevent state-law claims regarding the adequacy of drug labeling warnings.
  2. The manufacturer is always responsible for its drug labels and can update them under certain conditions without prior FDA approval.
  3. State tort suits can coexist with federal regulation as an additional layer of consumer protection.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the role of state law in regulating product safety when there is existing federal oversight?

State laws play a complementary role to federal regulation, offering additional protection to consumers by creating standards and remedies that may go beyond federal statutes. State courts can adjudicate claims on the grounds of negligence or strict liability when a product causes harm.

  • For example: A car manufacturer might meet all federal safety standards but if a state has its own stricter safety requirements and the car fails to meet them, the manufacturer could be held liable under state law for any accidents stemming from the deficiency.

How does the 'changes being effected' (CBE) regulation influence a manufacturer's liability for product labeling?

The CBE regulation allows drug manufacturers to unilaterally update their product labels with new safety information before obtaining FDA approval, potentially influencing liability. If a manufacturer fails to update their label under CBE regulations after learning of new risks, they may be held liable for harm caused.

  • For example: If a pharmaceutical company learns of new adverse effects of a medication that are not currently on the label, they can and should update the labeling immediately to warn consumers, rather than waiting for FDA approval, to mitigate liability and protect users.

In what ways can federal law preempt state law claims, and what are the exceptions?

Federal law can preempt state law claims when there is an explicit legislative intent to do so, or when state law conflicts with federal law, making compliance with both impossible. However, an exception exists when state laws offer complementary consumer protection without conflicting with federal objectives.

  • For example: Federal aviation regulations typically preempt state law claims involving aircraft safety; however, claims may proceed if they are based on grounds independent of the aviation regulations, such as deceitful marketing practices.

References

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