On June 24, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. Inc. v. Bartlett, 570 U.S. ____ (2013), finding that design-defect claims against generic drug companies are pre-empted where federal law prohibits an action required by state law. The Supreme Court had previously held in Pliva v. Mensing, 564 U.S. ____ (2011) that failure to warn claims against generic drug manufacturers are pre-empted by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act since generic drug makers must copy innovator drug labeling precisely in order to obtain approval of their products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”). The Court in Mutual rejected the argument of lower courts that the generic manufacturer could comply with both federal and state law by choosing not to make and distribute the product at all.

The case in question involved the drug sulindac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug product marketed by the innovator as Clinoril®. The plaintiff in the case had been prescribed sulindac for treatment of shoulder pain. She subsequently developed a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis following taking an FDA approved generic product equivalent to Clinoril®, which resulted in significant and permanent disability (including blindness) and disfigurement. Subsequent to the event, the FDA required a more specific warning as to this possible side effect on sulindac products. A jury found the generic manufacturer liable under a theory that there was a design defect with the product, and the First Circuit affirmed, holding that the generic manufacturer could have complied with both federal and state law by not manufacturing and distributing the product. This was the method by which the lower courts overcame prior precedent that a state law may be impliedly pre-empted when it is not possible to comply with both federal and state law.

The Supreme Court in Mutual noted that the generic manufacturer could not comply with the state law, since federal law requires that the active ingredient, the amount of the active ingredient, the dosage form, and the labeling had to be identical to the innovator product. In this case, it was not possible to redesign the product, and the only way, under New Hampshire law, to remedy the design defect would have been to strengthen the product’s warnings. That too could not be done, as FDA rules require the labeling of the generic to be identical to that of the innovator. The Court ruled that in such a case the state law is without effect, and relevant New Hampshire warning-based design defect cause of action was pre-empted with respect to FDA-approved generic drugs sold in interstate commerce.

The scope of the Mutual decision may be limited to those states where design-defect claims allow for a risk-utility approach such as that the New Hampshire requires. The New Hampshire standard requires, among other things in determining whether there is a valid cause of action for a design defect, a determination as to whether there is a possible warning to avoid unreasonable risk of harm from the design defect and the efficacy of such warning. So not every design-defect claim may be pre-empted, depending on each state’s laws are interpreted. But given the Court’s reasoning, even state laws that do not take into effect the presence of and efficacy of a warning, may be pre-empted, as the generic must copy the formula of the innovator in all respects, except for the inactive ingredients in the product. (It should be noted that generics of some dosage forms – ophthalmic products and injectable products – must, in most cases, contain the same inactive ingredients as in the innovator product in the same amounts).

Furthermore, the FDA may amend its rules to permit ANDA holders to make changes in labeling. See “FDA Rule Could Open Generic Drug Makers to Suits,” The New York Times, Business, July 4, 2013, at B2. As stated in the posting on the OMB website (RIN 0910-A694):

Abstract: This proposed rule would amend the regulations regarding new drug applications (NDAs), abbreviated new drug applications (NDAs), abbreviated new drug applications (ANDAs), and biologics license applications (BLAs) to revise and clarify procedures for changes to the labeling of an approved drug to reflect certain types of newly acquired information in advance of FDA’s review of such change. The proposed rule would describe the process by which information regarding a “changes being effected” (CBE) labeling supplement submitted by an NDA or ANDA holder would be made publicly available during FDA’s review of the labeling change. The proposed rule also would clarify requirements for the NDA holder for the reference listed drug and all ANDA holders to submit conforming labeling revisions after FDA has taken an action on the NDA and/or ANDA holder’s CBE labeling supplement. These proposed revisions to FDA’s regulations would create parity between NDA holders and ANDA holders with respect to submission of CBE labeling supplements.

The expected date for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is September 2013. It could, of course, take FDA quite some time to propose a rule, and put it into effect, given the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. And Congressional action is also a possibility.

For the present, however, generic drug manufacturers appear to be shielded from liability under the doctrine of pre-emption from most, if not all, failure to warn and design defect claims under state law. Whether that victory is short-lived or not remains to be seen.