New law reverses controversial “innovator liability” high court ruling

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Manufacturers of brand-name products cannot be held liable for the effects of generic versions they don’t make or sell, according to a law signed by Gov. Robert Bentley last week.

Senate Bill 80 reverses a controversial product liability ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court. In Weeks v. Wyeth, the court ruled brand-name drug makers could be held liable for copycat versions of their products.

The plaintiffs in Weeks sustained injuries due to long-term use of a generic version of the drug Reglan. Though Wyeth Pharmaceuticals neither made nor sold the version of Reglan that the plaintiffs ingested, the Alabama Supreme Court said that the company was responsible for its effects.

At the time of the ruling, The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized the court’s “bad judgment,” warning that it “contradicts the overwhelming trend in federal and state courts on innovator liability.”

AL.com covered the original ruling and quoted Justice Michael Bolin’s opinion that the court’s decision was limited to the pharmaceutical industry: “Nothing in this opinion suggests that a plaintiff can sue Black & Decker for injuries caused by a power tool manufactured by Skil based on labeling or otherwise,” Bolin wrote.

However, in a national report on court imbalances, the American Tort Reform Foundation called the Alabama court’s decision “irresponsible” and claimed it would “effectively force innovating companies to act as insurers for their generic competitors’ products by diverting vast sums from research and development and spending them instead on litigation.”

The House and Senate passed companion legislation by an overwhelming margin: by respective votes of 88-7 and 32-9. Sen. Cam Ward sponsored Senate Bill 80; in an interview with The Associated Press, he said it would benefit not only pharmaceutical companies but all manufacturers in the state.

Rep. Jack Williams, chair of the House Commerce and Small Business Committee, sponsored House Bill 110 and said, “This State Supreme Court ruling threatens Alabama’s ability to compete with other states in recruiting manufacturers in the automobile industry, the aerospace industry, the pharmaceutical industry and just about any other you can imagine.”

Williams saidd, “When a company invents a product, it should not be liable if a third party replicates the product and is later sued by a consumer as a result.”

The new law will go into effect this year.

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