An Explosion of Litigation

Already burdened by $8 trillion in new federal spending commitments and the likelihood of higher taxes to pay for bailouts, pork, and welfare, the economy now faces an additional threat: an explosion of litigation.

Even liberal Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley can’t stand the Supreme Court’s liberal 6-to-3 ruling in Wyeth v. Levine, which let a patient sue an innocent drug maker for an injury caused by a physician’s assistant who disregarded repeated warnings by the drug maker. (The ruling indirectly “will cost lives“). As Kinsley notes,

“Diana Levine, a professional guitarist, showed up at the hospital for the second time in one day complaining of . . . hours-long spasms of ‘retching’ and ‘vomiting.’ She was injected with an anti-nausea drug called Phenergan. The label on Phenergan says six times, in different ways, some of them in boldface capital letters, that if Phenergan gets into the arteries, the result can be disastrous. Nevertheless, a physician’s assistant used the wrong method of injection, and Levine’s arm turned gangrenous and ultimately had to be amputated.”

“The drug company Wyeth has sold Phenergan, with Food and Drug Administration approval, since 1955. The official question in Wyeth v. Levine, decided last week by the Supreme Court (the quotes above are from Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent), was whether that federal government approval “pre-empts” a Vermont jury ruling in favor of Levine. The court said no. A more interesting question is: How did we end up with such a crazy system for making important decisions? . . .”

“What happened to Diana Levine is a tragedy and a scandal. But what did Wyeth do wrong? Is there any way the company could have stayed out of trouble? It’s unlikely. Phenergan has been legal for half a century. (If you Google the word “Phenergan,” the results include pages containing an ad for Phenergan online.) So if you can’t get them for the product itself, you nail them for a “failure to warn.” The basic fiction at the heart of the whole system of regulation by lawsuits is that people read and act on warning labels. But the FDA approved Wyeth’s original warning label and every change since. “Not good enough,” said a Vermont jury, and, incredibly, a majority of the Supreme Court agreed.”

The arbitrary litigation fueled by this decision will cost lives over the long run by discouraging medical innovation, notes Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal. Jim Copland and Paul Howard call the counterproductive Wyeth decision “a ‘cure’ worse than gangrene.”

Ted Frank calls the Wyeth decision the most anti-business decision in more than 40 years. Yet, amazingly, the liberal New York Times, which wants even more lawsuits, accused the Supreme Court of “reflexive deference to corporations“!!!

Greg Conko observes that the jury’s decision was baseless and undermined the FDA’s labeling process. “The physician’s assistant injected Phenergan into Ms. Levine’s artery, in direct contravention of six label warnings against arterial injection. More or sterner warnings against arterial injection would not have prevented Ms. Levine’s injury.” “FDA made a regulatory decision that the benefits of IV injection outweighed the risks, and the agency permitted the product to be labeled accordingly. . . letting a Vermont jury penalize Wyeth for not ruling out IV injection on Phenergan’s label is tantamount to letting a group of laymen over-rule FDA’s expert opinion regarding safety.” Yale Law School’s Peter Schuck similarly criticizes the Supreme Court’s decision.

Don’t expect any help from Congress. Incredibly, it is moving to abolish what little limits there currently are on state court lawsuits that undermine federal drug-labeling requirements. The day after the Wyeth decision, trial lawyer allies like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) proposed legislation to completely abolish any preemption of such lawsuits, even in the exceedingly narrow circumstances where the Supreme Court admits preemption is appropriate.

Drug and device lawyers explain the Wyeth decision as being partly the judiciary’s reaction to the 2008 election, when liberal politicians friendly to lawsuits, and hostile to (often mythical) “deregulation,” made big gains. As the humorist Finley Peter Dunne noted a century ago, the Supreme Court reads election returns.

Workplace lawsuits also will rise. A costly comparable-worth bill backed by the Administration, the Paycheck Fairness Act, passed the House earlier this year on a largely party-line vote. And a law that largely eliminates the statute of limitations in pay-discrimination cases, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was signed by Obama in January. Obama made false claims about the Supreme Court decision the Ledbetter law overturned (and the facts of that case), and broke campaign promises he made by signing it into law without the opportunity for public comment.

Obama also backs the so-called Civil Rights Restoration Act, which would radically rewrite federal discrimination law in several ways, such as scrapping limits on punitive damages (and allowing them in situations never before permitted by any federal court), and making schools liable for many more instances of “peer harassment” by students (increasing the pressure on colleges to adopt speech codes).

Other “radical employment law changes will create lots of work for attorneys,” according to the National Law Journal.

The economy-shrinking stimulus package Obama signed also contains multiple provisions creating new grounds for lawsuits. It contains increased damages and state attorney-general rights to sue under the burdensome and expensive HIPAA law, which contributed to the Virginia Tech shootings, has impeded public safety, and causes billions of dollars in losses due to pointless red tape. The stimulus package also contains vague and expansive whistleblower provisions allowing suits over actual or perceived wrongdoing.

The Administration also shows no interest in tempering the excesses of a law Obama supported, the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, which has shut down thrift stores and entire industries, and gives state attorney generals and their trial lawyer allies broad new powers to bring lawsuits over toys, clothes, and books, resulting in children’s books being thrown out and pulled from library shelves by the thousands.