This morning the United States Supreme Court ruled against the drug maker Wyeth in a decision that can be seen as a huge victory for the American public. The a surprising decision the Court ruled that pharmaceutical companies can be held liable for harm caused to individuals who take their medications, despite previous federal approval.
The justices reaffirmed a Vermont Supreme Court hearing that upheld a $7 million award to guitarist Diana Levine, who had to have part of her arm amputated after being improperly injected with the Wyeth’s anti-nausea medication Phenergan as part of a treatment for a migraine.
"The question we must decide is whether the FDA’s approvals provide Wyeth with a complete defense to Levine’s tort claims. We conclude that they do not," Justice John Paul Stevens concluded in the court’s majority opinion.
Levine’s attorneys argued that Wyeth should have provided stronger warning for administering the drug in the method that cost Ms. Levine her arm, while Wyeth attorneys contended that the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the medication should prevent or pre-empt any subsequent liability claims against the company.
Federal pre-emption has long been the goal of Big Pharma and in recent years has been supported by the republicans of the Bush administration.
Following last year’s Supreme Court decision that pre-empted state liability claims regarding medical devices that had been approved by the FDA, most experts believed that the Court would deliver a similar decision in the Levine case.
Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the majority’s judgment that federal law does not prevent the state lawsuit but used a different legal approach. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Today’s judgment can be seen as a monumental victory for consumer rights and hopefully will be the first or steps toward correcting the recent erosion the rights of citizens in favor of big business.