Another side of immunizing med-tech companies from suit

There has been a renewed clamor in Michigan to repeal the state’s drug-manufacturer immunity law in the wake of Merck’s agreement to a multi-billion dollar settlement of claims that one of its drugs, Vioxx, may have had the troublesome side effect of causing often-fatal heart attacks or strokes.

Michigan’s immunity law, conceived and enacted in the hubris resulting from Republican domination of all three branches of the state government in the mid-1990s, gave pharmaceutical manufacturers a free pass on civil liability claims in Michigan courts if the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the complained-of drug.

Legislation to repeal this much-criticized special-interest law – a Detroit Free Press editorial recently labeled it as “easily one of the worst legacies of former Gov. John Engler” – has been stalled in the Michigan Senate for most of this year. And it may stay there longer still.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Riegel v. Medtronic, (click here for a Dow Jones Newswire report), in which the medical equipment manufacturer proposes a slightly less draconian but nationwide version of legal immunity for med-tech companies.

Medtronic, the world’s largest med-tech company, is defending a product liability case filed after the balloon on one of its catheters burst during an angioplasty, which required emergency bypass surgery to save the patient’s life. Medtronic is arguing that federal regulation of sophisticated medical equipment pre-empts claims under state law by patients who say such equipment injured them. Both lower courts have agreed with Medtronic’s position.

The Dow Jones report suggests that Medtronic’s argument got a friendly reception in the Supreme Court as well. But the tenor of oral arguments is not always a reliable predictor of how a case turns out.

Keep your eye on the Medtronic case. It will be powerful medicine, no matter which way the Court goes.


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