This week, movie star (and part-time Austin resident) Dennis Quaid spent a considerable amount of time speaking to Congress about preemption. Quaid told Congress the oft-repeated story of his twins, and described how preemption, the silent tort-reform, threatens everyone’s safety. I could summarize the testimony, but I couldn’t come close to describing the problem as eloquently as Quaid, who said:
Since this brush with tragedy, I have found out that medication errors are unfortunately all too common. Approximately 100,000 U.S. patients die every year because of medical errors in hospitals alone. It’s a toll we would never tolerate in aviation, nearly the equivalent of a full 747 crashing every single day.
I have also learned a lot about the legal system – and it was surprising, I have to tell you. Like many Americans, I believed that a big problem in our country was frivolous lawsuits. But now I know that the courts are often the only path to justice for families that are harmed by the pharmaceutical industry and medical errors. Yet the law is stacked against ordinary people.
For instance, in my home state of California, a 1975 law caps compensation to malpractice victims. The cap has never been raised for inflation. The practical effect is that people without the wealth to pay legal fees up front are unable to get their cases before a judge or jury.
Now we face something with potential to be even more sweeping and even more unjust: federal preemption. The Supreme Court is about to decide whether to bar most lawsuits over drugs and their labeling, as long as the drug was approved for marketing by the FDA. After many years of rejecting arguments that FDA actions should preempt lawsuits involving injuries from products regulated by the FDA, White House appointees at the FDA reversed that position in 2002, and now argue that FDA approval immunizes the manufacturers of dangerous products from liability for the deaths and injuries they cause.
It is hard for me to imagine that this is what Congress intended. You tell me, Mr. Chairman: When it passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, did Congress intend to give appointed bureaucrats at the FDA the right to protect a drug company from liability, even when the company cuts corners and jeopardizes our safety?
A federal ban on lawsuits against drug companies would not just deny victims compensation for the harm they experience. It would also relieve drug companies of their responsibility to make products as safe as possible, and especially to correct drug problems when they are most often discovered – years after their drugs are on the market.
Permitting bureaucrats who are under pressure from their bosses and the drug companies themselves to yank our access to the courts is incomprehensible. We have all heard about understaffing and backlogs at the FDA, and about drug-safety scrutiny that is patchy at best. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the drug companies, it will eliminate one of the most effective deterrents to letting the bottom line win out over public health and safety.
We Americans need some balance on the scales of justice in our country.
And I thank Mr. Quaid for his action. For far too long, the US Chamber of Commerce and the like have dominated the press on civil justice issues. It’s finally time that someone takes the mantle to speak out on behalf of the public.