Justices rule on medical device case

February 20, 2008 6:16:59 PM PST
The Supreme Court on Wednesday made it harder for consumers to sue manufacturers of federally approved medical devices.In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled against the estate of a patient who suffered serious injuries when a catheter burst during a medical procedure.

The case has significant implications for the $75 billion-a-year health care technology industry, whose products range from heart valves to toothbrushes.

In a recent three-month span, federal regulators responded to over 100 safety problems regarding medical devices.

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the estate of Charles Riegel could sue a company under state law over a device previously cleared for sale by federal regulators.

Under federal law, a company must substantiate the safety and effectiveness of a medical device before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will approve it for the marketplace.

State lawsuits are barred to the extent they would impose requirements that are different from federal requirements, said the ruling by Justice Antonin Scalia.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Congress never intended "a radical curtailment of state common-law lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries caused by defectively designed or labeled medical devices."

Seven federal appeals courts including the one in Riegel's case have interpreted federal law on medical devices as prohibiting state lawsuits. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and the Illinois Supreme Court have ruled otherwise.

Charles Riegel's family alleged that the catheter produced by Metronic Inc. had a design defect and an inadequate warning label. Riegel survived the procedure to unclog an artery, though he had permanent disabilities, his family says. He died in 2004.

The Bush administration sided with industry, saying unfavorable state jury verdicts would compel companies to alter product designs or labels that had already gotten FDA approval.

Lawyers for Riegel's estate argued that a manufacturer can use FDA approval as a legal defense, but cannot use the law to block state lawsuits altogether.

Lawyers for Riegel's estate said that FDA procedures are far less rigorous than Medtronic says.

The case is Riegel v. Medtronic, 06-179.

Load Comments