The Supreme Court decided another tort preemption case today. The Court somewhat clarified the law of preemption, but it was another 5-4 decision.
Preemption is the rule that when a state law conflicts with the federal law, the federal law controls and the state law is void. I discussed the law of federal preemption in a previous post. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the United States Constitution trumps federal statutes, and federal statutes trump all forms of state law - state constitutions, state statutes, and state common law are all lower on the legal hierarchy than federal laws.
This all seems very natural when a federal statute conflicts with a state statute or when the United States Constitution conflicts with a State Constitution or other state law or official state policy. In such cases obviously the state statute or other state law is void and of no legal effect. Preemption seems less appropriate when a federal regulatory law is said to preempt state common law tort claims against a person or a company who has injured someone. Since the Cipollone case in 1992, however, the Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases that a plaintiff's tort claim in state court (usually consisting of a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a defective product) was barred by a particular federal law.
The Supreme Court issued another preemption ruling today in the case of Altria Group, Inc. v. Good. This time the plaintiffs won - the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not preempt the plaintiffs' state tort law claims.
The plaintiffs in the Altria case had smoked the defendant's cigarettes for over 15 years. These cigarettes were labeled as "light" cigarettes which were "Lower in Tar and Nicotine." These cigarettes also bore the warning labels which are required on all cigarettes, which include the following:
Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy; Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health; Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth Weight; Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide
Despite the presence of these ominous warnings, the plaintiffs continued to smoke the cigarettes manufactured by the defendant manufacturer. They ultimately sued the manufacturer on the theory that by referring to its cigarettes as "light" and as having lower tar and nicotine, the manufacturer had misled them into believing that these cigarettes were safer than they really are. The plaintiffs brought their lawsuit under the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act, which provides remedies against and imposes penalties upon companies that engage in false or misleading advertising.
The defendant cigarette manufacturer defended this lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiffs' claim was preempted by federal law, specifically the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. That law prohibits cigarette advertising on radio and television, it requires the warnings quoted previously that must appear on all packaging and advertising of cigarettes, and it expressly preempts the States from requiring different or additional kinds of warnings on labeling or advertising. The federal Labeling Act states:
No requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under State law with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes the packages of which are labeled in conformity with the provisions of this chapter.
There are two kinds of lawsuits that customers might bring against a manufacturer on the basis of labeling and advertising. One type of lawsuit is called "negligent failure to warn," that is, that the labels and advertisements should have contained additional information clarifying the danger posed by the product. The other kind of lawsuit is "fraud" or "deceptive act or practice." This type of claim asserts that the manufacturer's labels or advertisements are misleading.
The issue that the Supreme Court decided today was whether the federal law preempts both negligent failure to warn and fraud and deceptive act or practice claims, or whether the federal law only preempts the negigent failure to warn claims. The Court ruled that the federal Labeling Act preempts only the negligent failure to warn claims, and that state tort law claims based upon fraud or deceptive acts or practices may go forward. Basically, the Court ruled that the states may not punish the cigarette companies for failing to put different or additional warnings on cigarette packages or advertisements, but they may punish cigarette companies for putting false or misleading information on packages or advertisements.
The ruling of the Court does not mean that the plaintiffs will automatically win. It just means that their lawsuit may go forward. They will still have to prove that the statements of the cigarette companies were misleading and that this caused injury to the plaintiffs.
In the course of its opinion the Supreme Court made an important statement in relation to the law of preemption. The Court said:
The historic police powers of the States [are] not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.
This means that there is a presumption that the federal law does not preempt state law unless there is persuasive evidence that Congress intended to preempt the state law. Evidence of Congress' intent will most likely be found in the legislative history of the federal law. This portion of the ruling of the Court means that in the future there it will be more difficult for manufacturers to prove that a federal law preempts state tort law claims.
As noted above, however, this was a 5-4 decision. A slightly different set of facts might result in a ruling for the manufacturer, and the replacement of one of the justices in the majority might also bring about a different result.
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