After a string of painful rulings around the country for plaintiffs in the past several years, lawyers that represent victims of dangerous prescription drugs breathed a heavy sigh of relief recently when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its decision in Lance v. Wyeth. In this significant decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Wyeth Ltd.’s argument, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., that it was untouchable for injuries to users of its now discontinued weight loss drug, Redux. In fact, the court’s ruling opened up drug manufacturers to a previously prohibited claim by holding Wyeth responsible for design defects and marketing of its drug. While this ruling impacts only those suits brought in Pennsylvania state courts, this decision is one to watch, especially for anyone focused on holding accountable pharmaceutical manufacturers who market and sell harmful and potentially deadly prescription drugs.
In years past, individuals injured by prescription drugs were confined to failure to warn cases because pharmaceutical manufacturers were protected from defective design claims. Now, plaintiffs who suffer injury or death after using even FDA-approved drugs can bring suit (in Pennsylvania state courts) for not only inadequate warnings but also negligent design of the drug. In making their ruling, the majority made clear that drug companies would no longer receive a free pass in Pennsylvania, stating nothing “would persuade us to immunize companies from the responsibility to respond in damages for such a lack of due care resulting in personal injury or death.”
This decision has been long-awaited – the oral argument before the court took place in 2011. Interestingly, it was a legal misstep by Wyeth that led to this tremendous decision for plaintiffs. In Lance, Wyeth moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims, which was appealed. A court hearing an appeal on such a claim is required to take all of the plaintiff’s allegations as true. InLance, one of those allegations was that Wyeth knew the risks of Redux outweighed its benefits. As a result, the majority of the Court found that, where drug companies introduce a drug into the marketplace with knowledge it is too dangerous to be used by anyone, they violate their duty of care to users of their product.
It should also be noted that the American Association for Justice worked tirelessly to support plaintiffs in this case and wrote amicus briefs which the court considered in making this decision. Their work paid off, and this decision marks a huge step toward protecting the rights of plaintiffs in Pennsylvania.
Read the full opinion.