United States Supreme Court Decides that FDA Impossibility Pre-emption is a Matter for Judges, not Jurors

Jordan Lipp, Esq. | Managing Member, Childs McCune

It is a basic tenant of Constitutional law that if it is impossible to comply with both state and federal law, the state law is preempted and only the federal law controls. This is referred to as “impossibility pre-emption,” and is a frequently litigated issue regarding products regulated by the FDA, especially drugs. In approving warnings, the FDA is concerned not just with warning, but also preventing “overwarning” and making sure that warning language does not exaggerate the risk. In state law personal injury actions, however, plaintiffs frequently argue that the drug company should have provided more warnings or stronger warnings. This creates the significant possibility that a company regulated by the FDA may be put in a situation where the FDA does not permit it to over-warn under federal law, but at the same time it is faced with state law litigation arguing that it was required to over-warn by state tort law. When caught between this impossible position of not being able to comply with both federal and state law, the state law is preempted. When the state law is preempted, the personal injury lawsuit must be dismissed.

As the United States Supreme Court has stated (in a wonderfully confusing string of negatives): “‘absent clear evidence that the FDA would not have approved a change’ to the label, the Court ‘will not conclude that it was impossible . . . to comply with both federal and state requirements.’” Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, No. 17-290, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 3542, at *3 (May 20, 2019) (quoting Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U. S. 555, 571 (2009), ellipses in original). An open question, until now, has been who makes this decision. Does the judge or the jury decide whether the FDA would not have approved a label change?

That question was answered yesterday by the United States Supreme Court. In Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, the Third Circuit decided that it was a question for the jury whether the FDA would have rejected the atypical femoral fractures warning pushed by the plaintiffs in the Fosamax litigation. Merck appealed this decision. Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court disagreed with the Third Circuit. It found that “judges, rather than lay juries, are better equipped to evaluate the nature and scope of an agency’s determination.” Id. at *27. As such, “a judge, not the jury, must decide the pre-emption question.” Id. at *18. And, interestingly enough, all nine justices agreed with the judgment, although for different reasons. While this outstanding question on impossibility preemption has now been answered, the precise scope of impossibility preemption will continue to be litigated for many years.

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