Featured Expert Column − Complex Serial and Mass Tort Litigation
by Richard O. Faulk, Hollingsworth LLP*
It’s been a long wait for those who believe the federal Clean Air Act preempts public nuisance claims under state common law.
When the Supreme Court reversed and remanded Connecticut v. American Electric Power in 2011, it refused to rule on the preemption issue—leaving the question for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to resolve on remand.1 Before that could happen, however, the plaintiffs withdrew their complaints—and the opportunity vanished.2
When a federal district court granted dismissal of a public nuisance claim in Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, the opportunity rose again. Hopes were high that the Third Circuit would affirm the dismissal, but alas, the court reversed. Nevertheless, the case rose to the Supreme Court on a petition for certiorari. Numerous amicus curiae briefs were submitted to support the petition, but the Supreme Court denied review. Many were left wondering whether the Supreme Court’s remand of the issue in AEP truly reflected the Court’s interest in the issue—or whether it was simply a matter of appellate housekeeping. Continue reading
By Eric G. Lasker, Hollingsworth LLP (Mr. Lasker argued McKay on behalf of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation in the Fifth Circuit)
Debates over whether—and in which circumstances—Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of prescription drugs and medical devices should preempt State law have been in the forefront of Supreme Court jurisprudence and Congressional action for over a decade. However, when a State itself concludes that FDA approval is the correct standard for state law liability, one would think that would end the debate, right? Well, yes, but not without a few tantrums along the way.
Texas’s FDA Defense. In 2003, Texas enacted a tort reform statute which protects pharmaceutical products manufacturers (subject to specifically defined exceptions) from liability based upon a warning or other information that was approved by the FDA. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 82.007(a). Texas took this step based upon the Legislature’s informed view that the State was facing an environment of excessive litigation that had caused a crisis in access to healthcare. Of course, the plaintiffs’ bar argued strenuously to the contrary. Many of their brethren appeared in hearings before the Texas Legislature; they accused the Legislature of caving to “Big Pharma” and argued that the FDA couldn’t be trusted to review drug safety. But the Legislature disagreed, and FDA-approval was adopted as the presumptive standard of care in pharmaceutical products liability cases in Texas.
Plaintiffs’ Bar’s Efforts to Judicially Nullify § 82.007(a). What was the response? Predictable. The plaintiffs’ bar turned to the courts to undo what the Legislature had done. They argued that § 82.007(a) should be read narrowly to apply only to expressly-labeled “failure to warn” claims, ignoring the fact that in pharmaceutical litigation, the adequacy of warnings is key regardless of the legal theory of liability. They argued that a jury should decide whether § 82.007(a) even applied, seeking a threshold whereby the jury could decide that the manufacturer secured regulatory approval through fraud on the FDA—despite clear U.S. Supreme Court authority that such a state law jury inquiry was preempted by federal law. They argued that the entire statute should be stricken if their interpretation of the fraud-on-the-FDA exception to § 82.007(a) was not accepted.
Thus far, each of these arguments has been rejected. As a result, one Texas plaintiff recently took a step that many Texans would consider a sacrilege: he asked the court to treat him as a Californian instead! The case is McKay v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., and on May 27, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected this desperate gambit as well. McKay v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., __ F.3d __, No. 13-50404, 2014 WL 2198544 (5th Cir. May 27, 2014). Continue reading
The Obama Administration has been a faithful friend of the plaintiffs’ bar, particularly regarding federal preemption of State-law tort claim against product manufacturers. The Food and Drug Administration has, for example, proposed a regulation (with direct input from plaintiffs’ lawyers) on labeling of generic drugs that would sweep away a federal preemption defense upheld twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Supreme Court brief filed on May 20 by the Solicitor General of the United States provides another example of just how committed the Administration is to this mutually beneficial friendship. In urging the Court to deny review in a medical device preemption case, the brief urges the Court to ignore an express preemption statute and to effectively overrule its 2008 pro-preemption decision in Riegel v. Medtronic.
The Supreme Court has steered a middle course when previously considering claims that the federal statute at issue, 21 U.S.C. § 360k(a), preempts product liability suits against medical device manufacturers. It held in a 1996 case that federal law does not preempt claims involving the vast majority of medical devices: those devices being marketed based on a determination that they are “substantially equivalent” to devices already on the market as of 1976 (so-called § 510(k) devices). The Court explained that FDA never undertook a formal review of the safety and effectiveness of such devices, and thus there was no reason to believe that Congress intended to prevent States from imposing their own safety and effectiveness requirements. The Court later held in Riegel that § 360k(a) generally does preempt design defect and failure-to-warn claims involving the small number of Class III devices that FDA has approved for marketing following a safety and effectiveness review undertaken in accordance with the agency’s rigorous pre-market approval (PMA) process.
The Solicitor General’s office submitted its brief in connection with a petition (Medtronic v. Stengel) seeking review of a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision that claims involving a PMA device for delivering pain medication were not preemped. (WLF filed an amicus brief in support of certiorari). Riegel left open the possibility that some State law claims might escape § 360k(a) preemption if they were “parallel” to federal law; i.e., if the State were simply imposing the very same requirements on a device that FDA regulations specific to the device already imposed. Lower courts have struggled in the ensuing years to craft a workable definition of a “parallel claim,” and the Stengel petition asks the Supreme Court to resolve a well-entrenched conflict among the federal appeals courts regarding the meaning of the parallel-claims exception. Last October, the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General to comment on the petition. Continue reading
Featured Expert Column
by Frank Cruz-Alvarez, Partner, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, L.L.P., Miami office, with Travis Robert-Ritter, an associate in the firm’s Miami office.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Lilly v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. held that California statutes obligating food manufactures to label the sodium content of the coating on sunflower seed shells are not expressly preempted by federal labeling law that exempts “bone, seed, shell, or other inedible components” from nutritional labeling requirements. — F.3d —-, No. 12-55921, 2014 WL 644706, at *1–3 (9th Cir. Feb. 20, 2014) (emphasis added). In doing so, the court departed from the fundamental precept of judicial interpretation that a statute or regulation “should be construed to give effect to the natural and plain meaning of its words,” and read a distinction into an unambiguous federal regulation where none exists. Id. at *3–4 (Vinson, J. Dissenting).
The appeal arose out of a putative class action filed against ConAgra Foods, Inc. for allegedly violating various California statutes by failing to include the sodium content of the coating on sunflower seed shells in the Nutritional Facts Panel of the company’s products. Id. at *1–2. ConAgra argued before the district court that the state-law claims were expressly preempted because they sought to impose a labeling requirement for sodium that is different from what is required under federal food labeling law. Id. The district court agreed, dismissing the putative class action as preempted because the claims attempted “‘to impose an additional sodium labeling requirement that [was] not identical to the’ Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (21 U.S.C. § 343).” Id. Continue reading
Not from lactating cows
Cross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page
In our Legal Pulse commentaries on regulation-by-litigation of food labeling, one issue has predominated this year: What is a “reasonable consumer”? Two court decisions issued on consecutive days last week, one from the infamous Food Court (the Northern District of California) and the other from the Southern District of Florida, turned in large part on that issue and indicate that judges will continue addressing the question in 2014.
You Mean They’re Not from Cows? Ang v. Whiteway Foods, authored by Judge Conti of the ND of California, involved consumer fraud claims against the maker of soymilk/almond milk/coconut milk and related yogurt products. The plaintiffs challenged the use of the term “milk” in the products as well as ingredient references to “evaporated cane juice” (ECJ).
Judge Conti found that an earlier settlement in a similar Florida lawsuit barred Mr. Ang’s ECJ-based claims due to res judicata. He then turned to the soy/almond/coconut “milk” claims. He first found that federal labeling rules preempt Mr. Ang’s claims. Federal rules do not prescribe how the plant-based beverages must be labeled, and the rules relating to “milk” only “pertain to what milk is, rather than what it is not.” In such situations, federal rules require that products use “the common or usual name” for the food. Judge Conti found that the “Silk” drink makers did that, and thus Mr. Ang’s suit would improperly impose rules beyond what FDA requires. Continue reading
Last Friday just prior to the Veterans’ Day weekend, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a highly anticipated notice of proposed rulemaking which addresses the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision, PLIVA v. Mensing. The proposal, Supplemental Applications Proposing Labeling Changes for Approved Drugs and Biological Products, was introduced by Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in an FDA Voice blog post. The proposal, according to her, is “intended to improve the communication of important drug safety information about generic drugs to both prescribers and patients.”
As emphasized in a New York Times story about the proposal, “The rule would also pave the way for lawsuits from patients who could now claim that generic companies did not sufficiently warn them of a drug’s dangers.”
As WLF’s Rich Samp argued here last August in Can FDA Lawfully Overrule SCOTUS Generic Drug Preemption Decision Through Regulation?, WLF doubts that FDA has the authority under federal law to take such an action. We look forward to participating in the regulatory process and the accompanying debate that will intensify now that FDA has formally proposed the rule.