As the legacy of the Roberts Court has started to form over the last few years, one of its most pronounced trends has been a highly pro-business bent. This trend continues this term with a series of rulings, including a very significant ruling in favor of medical manufacturers on the question of federal preemption in torts in Riegel v. Medtronic.
On one level, the 8-1 ruling in the case of Charles Riegel was not the result of the addition of Roberts and Sam Alito to the Court given the agreement of the other justices. Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. However, it fits nicely in a series of cases where business interests have tended to prevail with the Roberts court.
Riegel died three years ago due to an allegedly defective Medtronic catheter that ruptured during heart surgery in 1996. His widow sued under New York law, but the company argued that it was protected from such state lawsuits as a matter of federal preemption. The company argued that the pre-market testing and approval of the FDA preempted such state actions.
The Court agreed. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said medical devices of this kind are pre-approved under the FDA’s most stringent testing procedures. His opinion turned on statutory interpretation of the act. He noted that Congress responded to many lawsuits against manufacturers (particularly involving the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device) when it amended the law. When it set up the federal testing system, it precluded states from imposing “any requirement which is different from, or in addition to, any requirement applicable under this chapter.” He interpreted “requirement” to include state tort actions.
Justice Ginsburg disagreed and said that she found not intent in the record “to effect a radical curtailment of state common-law suits seeking compensation for injuries caused by defectively designed or labeled medical devices.” She relief in part on the glaring omission of a remedy for patients as indicative of a contrary legislative intent: “The MDA’s failure to create any federal compensatory remedy for such consumers further suggests that Congress did not intend broadly to preempt state common-law suits grounded on allegations independent of FDA requirements.” She was supported by members of Congress who responded to the ruling with anger and disbelief.
Putting aside the anger, this was clearly a case (again) of extremely poor legislative drafting. The decision, however, represents a significant blow to common law torts. There has long been a view that such pre-approval systems do not preempt common law torts. Indeed, in 1996, the Court ruled that devices approved by the FDA were not protected from state lawsuit. Those devices, however, fell under a different and less stringent process of pre-marketing review.
Other preemption cases are still pending with the Court, so this may be only the beginning of such protections for businesses.
The Riegel decision was accompanied on Wednesday with two other business cases.
In three key business rulings handed down Wednesday, the Supreme Court continued its trend toward freeing companies from the conflicting regulation of 50 different states in favor of one federal regime. In Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, the Court ruled in favor of tobacco companies, holding that the state of Maine could not impose its own legal requirements on delivery companies in order to prevent the delivery of tobacco products to minors. Notably, this decision was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, who has previously shown a tendency to support business interests in rulings. He said such laws interfered with the federal scheme of regulation.
The one case that prevented a clean sweep this week as LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, where the Court ruled that employees can sue employers under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act for mismanaging their 401(k) retirement plans.
The pro-business tilt was one of the expected signatures of the Roberts court, despite angry claims by Roberts supporters that no one could predict his vote patterns. For a prior column, click here and here
For a copy of the opinion, click here