Overruled


Credit Where Its Due
February 20, 2009, 10:04 am
Filed under: Ian | Tags:

The New York Times reports on the efforts to reverse Riegel v. Medtronic, a recent Supreme Court decision holding that the makers of dangerous medical devices are almost entirely immune from accountability when those devices injure or kill a patient:

On the same day last month that a federal judge in St. Paul threw out hundreds of lawsuits against the maker of a faulty heart device, a man entered a nearby hospital to have one of those flawed products surgically removed.

A slender electrical cable, or lead, connects an implanted defibrillator to a patient’s heart.

The risky operation went terribly wrong. As doctors extracted the device, a thin electronic cable, from the patient’s heart, a vessel was punctured, causing extensive bleeding. The 33-year-old patient, Mark Turnidge, died two days later, leaving behind a wife and two young sons.

“They told me he had suffered massive brain damage,” said his wife, Wendy Turnidge.

She is considering suing the doctors, as well as the device’s maker, Medtronic, which she said bore blame for her husband’s death. But a Supreme Court decision last year stands as a barrier against suing medical device companies — an obstacle that some members of Congress want to remove.

At issue is a February 2008 court ruling that barred patients or their survivors from suing makers of complex medical devices — like the Medtronic product — if the Food and Drug Administration has approved their sale. Since that ruling judges nationwide, including the one in St. Paul, have cited it to dismiss cases against a wide range of manufacturers, including Medtronic. The most recent dismissal was this past Tuesday, by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

But now, some members of Congress want to give potential plaintiffs like Ms. Turnidge a chance for legal recourse. Two House Democrats, Henry A. Waxman of California, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the head of its health subcommittee, plan to reintroduce soon legislation that would effectively nullify the Supreme Court decision.

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