Posted by: Tim Dowling
As Warming Law readers know, preemption law plays a key role in several pending lawsuits involving global warming. Various corporate interests argue that the federal Clean Air Act and federal energy laws prevent states and municipalities from enacting laws designed to reduce greenhouse gases. It is therefore vital for those interested in the law as it pertains to global warming to keep abreast of preemption developments.
During its upcoming Term, the U.S. Supreme Court will once again address preemption in Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. (No. 06-179). Community Rights Counsel filed an amicus brief to help ensure that the ruling respects the critical role that state and local laws play in promoting public health, safeguarding the environment, and protecting our communities.
Riegel is not an environmental case, but it raises significant issues for all preemption cases. The specific question presented in Riegel is whether the federal laws governing medical devices preempt state common law tort remedies. In 1996 Charles Riegel suffered serious injuries and disabilities during a coronary angioplasty because the balloon catheter inserted into his coronary artery burst during the operation. He sued the manufacturer of the catherter under New York State tort law alleging negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, and strict liability. The lower courts ruled that the federal Medical Device Amendments of 1976 -- revisions designed to add greater protection for consumers -- preempt these state law claims for damages, essentially leaving Riegel and others like him without legal recourse when injured by unsafe medical devices. Although the 1976 Amendments contain a provision expressly preempting certain state law regulations pertaining to medical devices, this provision is best read as leaving state common law remedies in place.
Apart from the specific issues in Riegel, the case raises a broader issue of preemption law of great importance to future environmental cases, namely, the level of clarity Congress must achieve when it wants to preempt state laws through an express preemption provision. As shown in Community Rights Counsel's amicus brief, binding precedent requires the court to refuse to apply an express preemption provision unless it is clear and unambiguous from the text of the provision itself that the challenged state laws fall within the scope of the preemptive act. This demanding standard affords proper respect to state sovereignty and the role of the states in our federal system as laboratories of experimentation on matters of public policy. Our brief also explains how this requirement promotes political accountability and predictability in the law.
These fundamental interpretive standards will provide states and environmental groups compelling arguments against industry assertions of preemption in pending and future global warming litigation. We'll keep Warming Law readers apprised of developments in the Riegel case as they unfold. Expect a ruling in the Spring of 2008.