On May 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a rare unanimous decision in Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht, et al., holding that judges, not juries, must decide whether state law failure-to-warn claims against brand-name drug manufacturers are preempted by the FDA’s labeling regulations. In so holding, the Court further clarified the preemption standard set forth in an earlier decision, Wyeth v. Levine, concluding that such claims are preempted where a drug manufacturer can show “that it fully informed the FDA of the justifications for the warning required by state law and that the FDA, in turn, informed the drug manufacturer that the FDA would not approve changing the drug’s label to include that warning.”
While the issue is a relatively narrow one, the Supreme Court’s analysis promises to shape the way courts around the country decide whether and how the decisions of regulatory agencies should be interpreted ― and here, predicted ― by juries.
How Did We Get Here?
The Fosamax litigation began in 2011, when the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated several thousand lawsuits in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The common question raised by the plaintiffs was whether their use of Fosamax, a drug developed and manufactured by Merck for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis, led to femur fractures and similar bone injuries, and further, whether Merck had properly warned of these potential risks.