Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Supreme Court Cases Focus on Whether Corporate Actors Must Answer to Juries

The Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear two cases that may impact consumers. Two cases address a troubling area--federal preemption. Both threaten to further restrict consumers' abilities to obtain compensation when wrongdoers cause harms and losses.

In Wyeth v. Levine, the Supreme Court will decide whether state law claims for injuries that seek payment for harms and losses caused by a dangerous drug are preempted, when federal law requires a warning on the drug. In the Levine case, Ms. Levine lost her arm as a result of complications from defendant's drug. The jury awarded money to make up for Ms. Levine's harms and losses. Now Wyeth argues that federal law protects it from answering for harms and losses caused by its misconduct.

In Altria v. Good, the Supreme Court will decide whether requirements that relate to the labels on cigarettes preempt consumers claims that they were deceived when Philip Morris sold Marlboro Lights. In the case--arising in Maine--consumers claim that Philip Morris failed to disclose that Marlboro "Lights" that were "lowered tar and nicotine" are only "light" when smoked by a machine. (Full disclosure: The author of this blog has been pursuing a similar claim on behalf of Oregon purchasers of Marlboro Lights.) In Altria, Philip Morris wants the Court to put a stop to these consumer cases because--Philip Morris claims--its labels were regulated by federal rules.

Nice try. Actually, nothing in any federal rule or law required Philip Morris to claim that its cigarettes were light or lowered tar and nicotine. They made that choice. And they also chose not to disclose that the "light" and "lowered tar and nicotine" labels apply to machines, not to people.

Still, this court seems to tilt in favor heavily in favor of corporate interests. As well, this court seems to distrust the jury's ability to hear and weigh the evidence and decide whether a consumer's harms and losses were caused by misconduct.

I long ago stopped making predictions about what any court will do. It's a waste of energy and time, and I imagine that I'm about as good at predicting as I am at calling heads or tails. Still, if these cases go the wrong way, consumers could find themselves with nowhere to turn when corporate misconduct causes serious harms and losses.

David F. Sugerman
Paul & Sugerman, PC

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