Supreme Court gives business 2 wins

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court gave business two big wins Wednesday by shielding companies from lawsuits and state regulations.

In one ruling, the court said makers of medical devices, such as heart valves and pacemakers, cannot be sued by injured patients if the Food and Drug Administration had approved the devices for sale.

In the second, the court freed shippers and delivery services, such as UPS, from state regulations requiring them to verify that an adult was the recipient of cigarettes delivered to a residence.


In the medical devices case, the court threw out a lawsuit against Medtronic Inc. over a balloon catheter that burst in the chest of a New York man. He underwent emergency surgery and died some time later. His wife sued Medtronic, saying the catheter was defective.

But in an 8-1 decision in Riegel vs. Medtronic, the court rejected her suit, saying juries may not second-guess the FDA on whether such devices were safe.

In the delivery case, Rowe vs. New Hampshire Motor Transport Assn., the court had been urged by the Bush administration and 38 states, led by California, to uphold a Maine law requiring shippers to check that a person receiving cigarettes is an adult.

In this era of Internet commerce, state officials want to make sure minors are not ordering illegal products for themselves. Store clerks have a duty not to sell certain products to minors, and that duty should extend to shippers and delivery services, the states said.

But in a 9-0 ruling, the court said a federal law deregulating the trucking industry swept aside all such state rules, even those designed to protect health and safety.

“You can’t have 50 states setting different rules for shipping services. It would result in higher costs and slower service,” said Washington lawyer Beth S. Brinkmann, who represented the shipping industry.


In both decisions, the court read federal law broadly to protect companies from juries and state regulators.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone dissenter in the Medtronic case, said the court read too much into the law. She said Congress did not intend to shield makers of medical devices from being sued when it adopted federal oversight in 1976.

She called the ruling “a radical curtailment” of the right to “seek compensation for injuries caused by defectively designed . . . medical devices.”

Ginsburg also urged Congress to pass a new law restricting cigarette sales to minors. There is a “large regulatory gap left” by Wednesday’s decision voiding the state laws, she said.

The rulings are the latest from the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. shielding companies from suits and regulations.

In the fall, the court will consider whether to shield the makers of prescription drugs from most lawsuits.


Business lawyers were delighted by the rulings.

“This is a big deal for companies that operate in a national economy,” Robin Conrad, a lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of the shipping case. “If you’re in business, you want only one set of regulations, not 50 states and different municipalities.”

But consumer rights advocates were dismayed.

“The court today poked a gaping hole in our federalist system, blocking important state solutions for keeping tobacco away from kids and protecting the victims of defective medical devices,” said Douglas T. Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel.

The decisions on the reach of federal law often bring together the conservative and liberal wings of the courts.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote the opinion in the cigarette case, was once a Senate staffer and worked on the laws deregulating the airline and trucking industries. Democrats at the time strongly supported these federal regulatory measures, including the Medical Device Amendment of 1976.

Meanwhile, the conservative justices have voted regularly to protect businesses from being sued by injured consumers.

The two decisions interpreted federal law as trumping state laws, and they were nearly unanimous.