WASHINGTON - Vermont musician Diana Levine won a $6.8 million judgment against drug maker Wyeth after having part of her right arm amputated in 2000 when an antinausea drug was improperly injected.
But Wyeth has appealed to the Supreme Court, setting up a potential landmark ruling that could make it easier for companies to defend themselves against product-liability lawsuits.
The case, along with a separate tobacco lawsuit against Altria Group Inc., centers on whether federal regulation of products overrides state laws, including those that govern when a company can be held liable for another's injury.
The court's ruling in the Wyeth case "potentially could apply to all lawsuits against all manufacturers of prescription drugs," said Mark Herrmann, a lawyer in Chicago who represents drug and medical device companies.
That's because the vast majority of lawsuits against drug makers involve the same issue: whether the company provided sufficient notice of potential hazards in the product's label. Pharmaceutical labels are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
If the court issues a broad ruling in favor of Wyeth, other industries likely will follow suit, said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law professor.
Businesses increasingly have used the preemption concept to fight consumer lawsuits. In the court's term that ended yesterday, the justices sided with businesses in two preemption cases and that bodes well for Wyeth. Preemption refers to the constitutional principle that federal laws override state laws.
The court also ruled in February that federal regulation of transportation prohibits states from imposing their own rules on shipping companies to help block tobacco shipments to minors.
"The chances are high that the Supreme Court in Wyeth . . . will come out in favor of the company," McGarity said.
Such a decision could lead the lower courts to throw out many high-profile cases against pharmaceutical companies, Herrmann said. That could include suits against Eli Lilly & Co., GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Pfizer, and other firms that have spent billions settling claims.
A ruling in favor of Wyeth also could lead lower courts to block suits like those filed against Merck & Co. Inc. that alleged its painkiller Vioxx led to increased heart attack risks. Merck settled thousands of those claims in November for $4.85 billion.
Meanwhile, the court also will consider a second preemption case next term brought by Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA.