Wyeth v. Levine

Citation77 USLW 4165,555 U.S. 555,129 S.Ct. 1187,173 L.Ed.2d 51
Decision Date04 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. 06–1249.,06–1249.
PartiesWYETH, Petitioner, v. Diana LEVINE.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court



Petitioner Wyeth manufactures the antinausea drug Phenergan. After a clinician injected respondent Levine with Phenergan by the “IV-push” method, whereby a drug is injected directly into a patient's vein, the drug entered Levine's artery, she developed gangrene, and doctors amputated her forearm. Levine brought a state-law damages action, alleging, inter alia, that Wyeth had failed to provide an adequate warning about the significant risks of administering Phenergan by the IV-push method. The Vermont jury determined that Levine's injury would not have occurred if Phenergan's label included an adequate warning, and it awarded damages for her pain and suffering, substantial medical expenses, and loss of her livelihood as a professional musician. Declining to overturn the verdict, the trial court rejected Wyeth's argument that Levine's failure-to-warn claims were pre-empted by federal law because Phenergan's labeling had been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: Federal law does not pre-empt Levine's claim that Phenergan's label did not contain an adequate warning about the IV-push method of administration. Pp. 1193 – 1204.

(a) The argument that Levine's state-law claims are pre-empted because it is impossible for Wyeth to comply with both the state-law duties underlying those claims and its federal labeling duties is rejected. Although a manufacturer generally may change a drug label only after the FDA approves a supplemental application, the agency's “changes being effected” (CBE) regulation permits certain preapproval labeling changes that add or strengthen a warning to improve drug safety. Pursuant to the CBE regulation, Wyeth could have unilaterally added a stronger warning about IV-push administration, and there is no evidence that the FDA would ultimately have rejected such a labeling change. Wyeth's cramped reading of the CBE regulation and its broad assertion that unilaterally changing the Phenergan label would have violated federal law governing unauthorized distribution and misbranding of drugs are based on the fundamental misunderstanding that the FDA, rather than the manufacturer, bears primary responsibility for drug labeling. It is a central premise of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the FDA's regulations that the manufacturer bears responsibility for the content of its label at all times. Pp. 1196 – 1199.(b) Wyeth's argument that requiring it to comply with a state-law duty to provide a stronger warning would interfere with Congress' purpose of entrusting an expert agency with drug labeling decisions is meritless because it relies on an untenable interpretation of congressional intent and an overbroad view of an agency's power to pre-empt state law. The history of the FDCA shows that Congress did not intend to pre-empt state-law failure-to-warn actions. In advancing the argument that the FDA must be presumed to have established a specific labeling standard that leaves no room for different state-law judgments, Wyeth relies not on any statement by Congress but on the preamble to a 2006 FDA regulation declaring that state-law failure-to-warn claims threaten the FDA's statutorily prescribed role. Although an agency regulation with the force of law can pre-empt conflicting state requirements, this case involves no such regulation but merely an agency's assertion that state law is an obstacle to achieving its statutory objectives. Where, as here, Congress has not authorized a federal agency to pre-empt state law directly, the weight this Court accords the agency's explanation of state law's impact on the federal scheme depends on its thoroughness, consistency, and persuasiveness. Cf., e.g.,Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 65 S.Ct. 161, 89 L.Ed. 124. Under this standard, the FDA's 2006 preamble does not merit deference: It is inherently suspect in light of the FDA's failure to offer interested parties notice or opportunity for comment on the pre-emption question; it is at odds with the available evidence of Congress' purposes; and it reverses the FDA's own longstanding position that state law is a complementary form of drug regulation without providing a reasoned explanation. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, is distinguished. Pp. 1199 – 1204.

183 Vt. 76, 944 A.2d 179, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined.

Edwin S. Kneedler for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting petitioner.

David C. Frederick, for respondent.

Bert W. Rein, Karyn K. Ablin, Brendan J. Morrissey, Wiley Rein LLP, Washington, DC, Allan R. Keyes, R. Joseph O'Rourke, Ryan, Smith, Carbine, Ltd., Rutland, VT, Seth P. Waxman, Counsel of Record, Paul R.Q. Wolfson, Catherine M.A. Carroll, Margaret Williams, Smith Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, William J. Ruane, Wyeth, Madison, NJ, for petitioner.

Richard I. Rubin, Rubin, Kidney, Myer & DeWolfe, Barre, Vermont, David C. Frederick, Counsel of Record, Scott H. Angstreich, Scott K. Attaway, Brendan J. Crimmins, Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Directly injecting the drug Phenergan into a patient's vein creates a significant risk of catastrophic consequences. A Vermont jury found that petitioner Wyeth, the manufacturer of the drug, had failed to provide an adequate warning of that risk and awarded damages to respondent Diana Levine to compensate her for the amputation of her arm. The warnings on Phenergan's label had been deemed sufficient by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when it approved Wyeth's new drug application in 1955 and when it later approved changes in the drug's labeling. The question we must decide is whether the FDA's approvals provide Wyeth with a complete defense to Levine's tort claims. We conclude that they do not.


Phenergan is Wyeth's brand name for promethazine hydrochloride, an antihistamine used to treat nausea. The injectable form of Phenergan can be administered intramuscularly or intravenously, and it can be administered intravenously through either the “IV-push” method, whereby the drug is injected directly into a patient's vein, or the “IV-drip” method, whereby the drug is introduced into a saline solution in a hanging intravenous bag and slowly descends through a catheter inserted in a patient's vein. The drug is corrosive and causes irreversible gangrene if it enters a patient's artery.

Levine's injury resulted from an IV-push injection of Phenergan. On April 7, 2000, as on previous visits to her local clinic for treatment of a migraine headache, she received an intramuscular injection of Demerol for her headache and Phenergan for her nausea. Because the combination did not provide relief, she returned later that day and received a second injection of both drugs. This time, the physician assistant administered the drugs by the IV-push method, and Phenergan entered Levine's artery, either because the needle penetrated an artery directly or because the drug escaped from the vein into surrounding tissue (a phenomenon called “perivascular extravasation”) where it came in contact with arterial blood. As a result, Levine developed gangrene, and doctors amputated first her right hand and then her entire forearm. In addition to her pain and suffering, Levine incurred substantial medical expenses and the loss of her livelihood as a professional musician.

After settling claims against the health center and clinician, Levine brought an action for damages against Wyeth, relying on common-law negligence and strict-liability theories. Although Phenergan's labeling warned of the danger of gangrene and amputation following inadvertent intra-arterial injection,1 Levine alleged that the labeling was defective because it failed to instruct clinicians to use the IV-drip method of intravenous administration instead of the higher risk IV-push method. More broadly, she alleged that Phenergan is not reasonably safe for intravenous administration because the foreseeable risks of gangrene and loss of limb are great in relation to the drug's therapeutic benefits. App. 14–15.

Wyeth filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Levine's failure-to-warn claims were pre-empted by federal law. The court found no merit in either Wyeth's field pre-emption argument, which it has since abandoned, or its conflict pre-emption argument. With respect to the contention that there was an “actual conflict between a specific FDA order,” id., at 21, and Levine's failure-to-warn action, the court reviewed the sparse correspondence between Wyeth and the FDA about Phenergan's labeling and found no evidence that Wyeth had “earnestly attempted” to strengthen the intra-arterial injection warning or that the FDA had “specifically disallowed” stronger language, id., at 23. The record, as then developed, “lack[ed] any evidence that the FDA set a ceiling on this matter.” Ibid.

The evidence presented during the 5–day jury trial showed that the risk of intra-arterial injection or perivascular extravasation can be almost entirely eliminated through the use of IV-drip, rather than IV-push, administration. An IV drip is started with saline, which will not flow properly if the catheter is not in the vein and fluid is entering an artery or surrounding tissue. See id., at 50–51, 60, 66–68, 75. By contrast, even a careful and...

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  • Wyeth v. Levine
    • United States
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    ...555 U.S. 555129 S.Ct. 1187173 L.Ed.2d 5177 USLW 4165WYETH, Petitioner,v.Diana LEVINE.No. 06–1249.Supreme Court of the United StatesArgued Nov. 3, 2008Decided March 4, Affirmed. Justice Breyer concurred and filed opinion. Justice Thomas concurred in judgment and filed opinion. Justice Alito ......
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