New U.S. Supreme Court term begins next week

Chris Rizo Sep. 29, 2008, 2:21am

U.S. Supreme Court building

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-The U.S. Supreme Court reconvenes next week for a term that will be conducted under the backdrop of November's presidential election.

Among cases to be heard by the high court is whether pharmaceutical companies may be sued for patient injuries, if the Federal Communications Commission may restrict foul language on broadcast television, if the Navy can be barred from using sonar off the California coast and whether local officials can be sued for violations that took place on their watch.

Today, the court's nine justices will meet to consider a bevy of petitions for review that were submitted over the court's summer break, including a petition to hear an appeal of a lower court's ruling that Baltimore (Md.) County violated the federal Natural Gas Act by banning the construction of liquefied natural gas terminals in coastal areas.

The court will begin to hear oral arguments Oct. 6.

The first case before the justices is one that asks if tobacco makers who manufacture "light" and "low tar" cigarettes can be sued by a class of Maine smokers for claims that the companies deceive smokers into thinking the products are safer than regular cigarettes. The case is Altria Group v. Good.

Altria, the parent company of cigarette maker Phillip Morris, says the claims are pre-empted by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965.

In another closely watched pre-emption case, the court will decide whether plaintiffs have a right to sue a pharmaceutical company for injuries or death from a medication approved by federal regulators.

The case of Wyeth v. Levine, will be heard Nov. 3.

The plaintiff, Diana Levine of Vermont, lost an arm to gangrene after an injection of the nausea drug Phenergan. Levine says that method of using the drug wasn't safe under Vermont state law.

The drug causes gangrene if it comes in contact with arterial blood, so the medication is typically given by intramuscular injection or intravenously.

Court papers say the physician's assistant who administered the drug to Levine gave it through an "IV push," and apparently missed the vein, causing the medicine to come into contact with arterial blood.

A jury awarded her more than $6 million to Levine because Wyeth failed to warn her adequately about the risks of the drug. Wyeth, however, says her claims are pre-empted by the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The case comes on the heels of last term's decision in Riegel v. Medtronic, which held that federal law bans lawsuits filed against manufacturers of products approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The justices ruled 8-1 to deny monetary damages to a New York man who sustained injury after an FDA-approved balloon catheter manufactured by Medtronic Inc. burst during his coronary angioplasty procedure.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at

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