Bellwether trials are gaining popularity, particularly in Louisiana. After Judge Fallon used the trials to help establish settlement values in the Vioxx litigation, Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt is proposing their use in the litigation over formaldehyde-laden FEMA trailers (FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Prods. Liab. Litig, MDL No. 1873, E.D. La.). As is typical in bellwether trials, the jury's opinion is advisory only and does not bind the parties for purposes of preclusion. The government has strongly opposed a jury trial given that the jury pool is likely to have strong feelings about the government's handling of pre- and post-Katrina events. Plaintiffs claim that the government-supplied trailers contained toxic materials, including formaldehyde.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota recently issued a ruling denying a third attempt at class certification in a consumer fraud MDL alleging material omissions by a manufacturer of a heart valve whose product was found to cause leaking in some clinical trials and was subsequently recalled from the market. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim (pictured) had previously approved class certification twice and on both occasions the Eighth Circuit reversed. Not surprisingly, then, Judge Tunheim ruled on this third occasion that the latest decision from the Eighth Circuit required him to deny certification.
Beginning in 1992, with the landmark decision in Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court has decided a burgeoning number of preemption cases, squarely challenging the continuing vitality of tort in many domains of accident law. Cipollone addressed the preemption question in an atypical context. The case did not involve competing claims to territorial authority between a regulatory regime and state tort law. Rather, Cipollone involved a challenge to the continuing viability of tort in the face of statutory directives mandating explicit industry conduct; more specifically, the explicit warnings required in the 1969 version of the cigarette labeling act.
In this article, I begin by revisiting Cipollone to reassess what it has to offer as a foundation for setting the boundaries of regulatory containment of the tort system. Next, I discuss three leading cases from the series of efforts by the Supreme Court to grapple with express preemption clauses in a variety of regulatory schemes. Against this backdrop, I then explore the circumstances under which it might be justified to imply preemption despite the absence of an express provision, with particular reference to the recent Supreme Court decision in Wyeth v. Levine, addressing preemption in the context of FDA regulation of prescription drugs. A concluding note ties the strands together.
Douglas Smith (Kirkland & Ellis) has posted on SSRN his article, Preemption After Wyeth v. Levine, Ohio St. L.J. (forthcoming 2009). Here's the abstract:
This Article addresses the Supreme Court’s recent preemption decision in Wyeth v. Levine. In Wyeth, the Court held that the Food and Drug Act did not preempt a state law tort suit alleging that the labeling for an anti-nausea medication, Phenergan, failed to adequately warn about the risks associated with IV-push administration of the drug. Already, Wyeth has been interpreted by some as sounding the death knell for the preemption doctrine in the context of pharmaceutical products. However, a careful analysis of the Court’s decision indicates that this is far from the case. The majority underscored that its decision was a 'narrow' one based largely on the facts and circumstances before it. In particular, the Court made a point of noting that the record was devoid of evidence that the particular risks at issue had actually been considered by the FDA and that the defendant had thus failed to show that there was an actual conflict between FDA regulation and the state law tort suit. The majority’s analysis therefore suggests that state law tort suits based on an alleged failure to warn are preempted in cases in which the FDA has specifically considered the particular risks at issue and has determined that the pharmaceutical product’s labeling adequately warns of those risks. I argue that the ruling thus construed has significant benefits. As the Court has repeatedly recognized, there is an inherent tension between the congressional establishment of a federal regulatory regime for the labeling of pharmaceuticals and medical devices by experts at the FDA and allowing a jury of ordinary citizens with no specialized expertise to render their own judgment regarding, and in effect overrule, such expert determinations. As several members of the Court have noted, there is a potential danger in allowing these expert decisions to be undermined by state court juries. Moreover, such an outcome may have undesirable indirect effects, such as raising the prices of pharmaceutical products to satisfy state court judgments that are not warranted based on the best available scientific evidence and the potential confusion and inconsistency that may result with juries in fifty-two separate jurisdictions imposing different standards concerning what constitutes appropriate labeling. The Court’s decision properly balances these competing considerations.