This post was written by Christopher C. Foster.

As many of you no doubt have heard, the United States Supreme Court last week decided that FDA regulations applicable to generic drug manufacturers preempt state law “failure to warn” claims in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, Nos. 09–993, 09–1039, and 09–1501, 564 U.S. ___ (2011). Among other sites, SCOTUSblog, the FDA Law Blog and the PharmaExec blog all have had interesting discussions of the decision.

To recap, Justice Clarence Thomas authored the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in PLIVA. The court concluded that federal law preempts state law  “failure to warn” claims asserted against generic drug manufacturers, because those manufacturers are required by federal law to use warnings that are identical to those used by brand name manufacturers. The case, which consolidated actions from Minnesota and Louisiana, involved plaintiffs who developed a condition called tardive diskinesia after taking metoclopramide–a generic of the brand name Reglan–for several years. Slip. op. at 3.

The Court’s decision focused on the distinct requirements federal law places on generic drug manufacturers with respect to their labeling. The Court explained that while a brand name drug manufacturer is responsible for the adequacy and accuracy of its label, a generic drug manufacturer is responsible for making sure its warning label matches that of its brand name counterpart. Id. at 6. As the FDA explained in its amicus brief, the duty of generic drug manufacturers with respect to its labeling is one of “sameness.” Id. The Court held plaintiffs’ claims preempted, concluding it was impossible for the generic manufacturers to comply simultaneously with the federal requirement that their labeling be the same as the brand name drug, and to simultaneously adopt a stronger label to comply with state law. Id. at 10-11.

Further, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that generic drug manufacturers should not be permitted to raise preemption as a defense, unless they had discharged their duty to ask the FDA for help in convincing brand name manufacturers to strengthen labeling. Id. at 13. The Court found that such an exception would prove too much, because a scenario can often be imagined where federal law may have allowed a party to also follow state law. Id. at 13-14. Yet the Supremacy Clause does not demand that a court strain to find ways to reconcile federal and state law. Id. at 15. “When the ‘ordinary meaning’ of federal law blocks a private party from independently accomplishing what state law requires, that party has established preemption.” Id. at 17.

The Court recognized the tension this decision created with Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009), which rejected preemption for failure to warn claims against brand name manufacturers just two years ago. It noted that had the plaintiffs taken the brand name drug, Reglan, rather than the generic drug, their lawsuit would not have been preempted under Wyeth. Id. at 19. It nevertheless rejected that as a reason for allowing plaintiffs to pursue their claims, noting that it was not its task to decide whether a statutory scheme adopted by Congress creates bizarre results. Id. at 19.

Much of the discussion about the case so far has focused on this issue of the tension between PLIVA and Wyeth, including what it means for implied preemption and how the lower courts should analyze preemption questions in the future. The decision is all the more interesting because it was authored by Justice Thomas, who garnered a fair amount of attention for stating in his concurring opinion in Wyeth that he was “increasingly skeptical of . . . the Court routinely invalidat[ing] state laws based on perceived conflicts with broad federal policy objectives, legislative history, or generalized notions of congressional purposes that are not embodied within the text of federal law.” PLIVA makes clear that Justice Thomas does not require all federal preemption to be express, it is just that he wants implied preemption to also be firmly grounded in text as well.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that the Court’s rejection of the argument that the generic manufacturers could have sought FDA assistance in changing the label is likely to create some interesting issues. The Court recognized that, in theory, the generic manufacturers could have acted under federal law to seek a change in its warning labels, but it rejected the argument because, even had the generic manufacturers done so, a label change ultimately depended on subsequent actions of the FDA and the brand name manufacturers. The Court seemed to accept the premise, though, that preemption could be denied to a party that “can act sufficiently independently under federal law to do what state law requires . . .” Slip. op. at 17. Just what “sufficiently independently” means, and the circumstances in which it may arise, remains an open question.

Regardless, this decision gives generic manufacturers a good defense to use in product liability cases going forward.