The ruling brought a sharp retort from the court’s liberals.
“As a result of today’s decision, whether a consumer harmed by inadequate warnings can obtain relief turns solely on the happenstance of whether her pharmacist filled her prescription with a brand-name or generic drug,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who noted that 75 percent of prescriptions are filled with generic drugs.
“The court gets one thing right: This outcome ‘makes little sense.’ ”
The ruling involved two women — Gladys Mensing and Julie Demahy — who sued Pliva and other generic drug manufacturers in state courts in Louisiana and Minnesota over the labels for metoclopramide, the generic version of Reglan.
The two women alleged that the drug, used to treat gastric problems, led to a severe neurological movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. At the time, none of the generic drug’s manufacturers and distributors made any effort to include warnings on the label about extended use of the medication.
But Justice Clarence Thomas said the case highlights a conflict between state and federal laws. The state statutes require drug manufacturers to warn about new information on dangerous side effects, but federal regulations require generic drugs to carry the exact same label information as the drugs they imitate.
“State law imposed a duty on the manufacturers to take a certain action, and federal law barred them from taking that action,” Thomas wrote. Federal law must take precedence, he said, and the women’s suits were barred.
Thomas drew a distinction from the court’s 2009 decision in
Wyeth v. Levine
, in which the court ruled 6 to 3 that brand-name drug-makers were liable in “failure-to-warn” suits filed under state product liability law. In that case, Thomas said, federal regulations allowed Wyeth “of its own volition to strengthen its label in compliance with its state tort duty.”
Thomas recognized that the distinction would be unsatisfying to the women: “Had Mensing and Demahy taken Reglan, the brand-name drug prescribed by their doctors . . . their lawsuits would not be preempted.”
But he added: “It is not this court’s task to decide whether the statutory scheme established by Congress is unusual or even bizarre.” Joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr., he noted that Congress and the Federal Drug Administration could “change the law and regulations if they so desire.”
Sotomayor said the problem was the court majority, not lawmakers or agencies: “Today’s decision leads to so many absurd consequences that I cannot fathom” it is what Congress intended, she said.