Medtronic, Inc., the maker of the faulty Sprint Fidelis Defibrillator Lead and several other defective medical devices, will try to convince the US Supreme Court that people injured by dangerous medical devices and drugs should not be allowed to sue manufacturers if those products have been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

If Medtronic is successful, the thousands of people injured by the company’s defective devices, as well as those hurt by faulty drugs and devices made by other manufacturers, would not be able to receive compensation for their injuries in state courts.

The Medtronic Supreme Court case stems from a lawsuit filed by the family of a New York man who suffered severe medical complications when a Medtronic-made balloon catheter burst during a procedure to clear his arteries. The man’s family sued Medtronic, claiming his injuries were caused by the catheter’s negligent design, manufacture and labeling, despite the fact the device had won FDA approval. The case was thrown out by a US District Court judge and then by the US Court of Appeals. The family is now appealing to the US Supreme Court.

Medtronic is arguing that because Congress granted the FDA the authority to determine whether products are safe and effective, state judges and juries should not be allowed to second-guess the FDA once a product is approved for use. Now, the Supreme Court must decide if Congress intended to bar state law claims when it gave the FDA authority to regulate medical devices in 1976.

That law clearly says that states can’t maintain requirements that are different from federal standards. But Congress didn’t specify that those federal standards preempted state common law claims, and device manufacturers didn’t argue that they did until recently. Medtronic and other companies are claiming that allowing state personal injury lawsuits against the makers of defective medical devices and drugs would amount to a state “requirement” different from FDA requirements because such complaints are based on state laws.

Consumer and patient advocates are vigorously opposed to Medtronic’s arguments. They fear that by removing the threat of lawsuits, manufacturers like Medtronic would have no incentive to keep devices and drugs that they know are defective off the market. And the FDA cannot be trusted to keep consumers safe, because the agency has approved some drugs – like Vioxx- and devices based on sloppy or falsified test data. Patient advocates insist that often, lawsuits are the only way evidence of such fraud or faulty tests ever come to light.

Finally, consumer advocates fear that the FDA is simply not up to the job of keeping unsafe drugs and medical devices away from the public. A report issued Friday by three members of the FDA’s own Science Board said that the agency was so poorly organized and short of funds that it could not adequately protect the public.

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