Patients Win, Drug Industry Loses, in Safety Case before Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a strong push by the pharmaceutical industry to win immunity from lawsuits filed by injured plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision in the case of Wyeth v. Levine, the Supreme Court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a drug’s label does not mean that the manufacturer has no obligation to improve the warnings on the label if new information comes to the attention of the manufacturer.

This is a big victory for patient safety. The case will help doctors too, by keeping the pressure on the drug manufacturers to keep their product labels up-to-date so that doctors can be educated about the safest way to use drugs. Medical leaders, such as a group of editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, had filed “friends of the court” briefs urging the Supreme Court to take the side of the injured patient.

The heroic patient who pushed this case was Diana Levine, a Vermont musician who lost her arm and her career after being injected too rapidly with an anti-nausea drug called Phenergan. The drug is well known to cause terrible injuries if it gets into an artery. She contended, and the jury and the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, that the drug’s manufacturer, Wyeth, knew about this risk and should have warned doctors on the label to avoid the “i.v. push” technique that carried a high risk of inadvertent injection into an artery.

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