U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Medical Device Lawsuits


I reprint here a summary from the recent important decision in Riegel v. Medtronic. This comes directly from the People Over Profits Grassroots Action Center:

Riegel v. Medtronic

In this case, Charles Riegel received a balloon catheter made by Medtronic which subsequently ruptured due to overinflation. Riegel developed a heart block and underwent emergency surgery. The Riegels later brought claims against Medtronic in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. The court found that the Riegels claims were preempted under the Medical Device Act, and the Second Circuit Court affirmed the decision. In this opinion, the Supreme Court affirms.


- The Supreme Court holds that state law claims regarding medical devices are preempted under the Medical Device Amendments (MDA) where the device manufacturer complied with federal requirements.
- The Court notes that review of the MDA turns on the definition of "requirements" in the statute. The decision states: "Absent other indication, reference to a State's 'requirements' includes its common-law duties." Thus, the holding expands beyond conflicting State regulations and statutes, which Congress was addressing in the MDA.

Limits of the Decision

It appears that the Court tried to limit the decision in several ways.

- The opinion applies to medical devices only (not approved drugs) based on the preemption language included in the Medical Device Amendments.
- The Court draws a distinction between state law claims made regarding devices approved under substantial equivalent review requirements and section 510(k) pre-market approval requirements.
- The Court discusses the extensive FDA review process for Class III medical devices only, rendering the application of the opinion to Class I and II devices uncertain.
- The Court expressly states that the decision does not apply to cases where the manufacturer did not comply with federal requirements.
- In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg's first footnote states that the "Court's holding does not reach an important issue outside the bounds of this case: the preemptive effect of section 360k(a) where evidence of a medical device's defect comes to light only after the device receives premarket approval."

Attacks on the Civil Justice System

This decision makes several derogatory claims about the civil justice system:

- Justice Scalia claims that the "Dalkon Shield failure and its aftermath demonstrated the inability of the common law tort system to manage the risks associated with dangerous devices."
- The opinion claims that lay juries do not appreciate the benefits of medical devices. "A jury, on the other hand, sees only the cost of a more dangerous design, and is not concerned with its benefits; the patients who reaped those benefits are not represented in court."