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Supreme Court Decision Personal for Pharmaceutical Victim

By striking down the doctrine of pre-emption in drug liability cases, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against in Wyeth v. Levine may carry wide-reaching implications for the pharmaceutical and legal industries.

For Diana Levine, however, the Supreme Court’s decision carries even deeper meaning.

Nine years ago, Levine went to a clinic to treat a severe migraine. In addition to painkillers, the 63-year-old musician was also given an injection of Wyeth’s anti-nausea drug, Phenergan, via IV-push. The method of administration, which Wyeth knew was dangerous, allowed Phenergan to come into contact with arterial blood, leading to rapid, irreversible gangrene. Doctors were eventually forced to amputate most of Levine’s right arm.

The injury was life-changing. Levine was no longer able to play piano or guitar, and her 30-year-long musical career was devastated. Without the use of her right arm, the daily challenges of rural life became nearly insurmountable difficulties. Simple tasks, from opening a window to turning a car key in the ignition, required the help of another person. Hoping for a righting of wrongs, Levine filed suit.

Yet justice was slow in coming. Though Levine quickly reached a settlement with the clinic involved, her lawsuit against Wyeth dragged on for years. A Vermont jury awarded her $6.7 million, but the verdict was quickly appealed and re-appealed by Wyeth.

For nine years, Levine could do little but watch and wait as the legal wrangling over her case intensified. A decision in her favor by the Vermont Supreme Court was only a temporary victory; the case was once again appealed, this time to the US Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, March 4, by a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court upheld Levine’s award, and nine years of uncertainty drew to a close. Upon receiving the news, Levine broke down, weeping with happiness and relief.

It was a victory for Levine, her family, and the consumer public. Though Wyeth complained that the ruling allowed “lay juries to second-guess the experts at FDA,” Levine and her family saw it differently. “The money, to me, means the company was held accountable for something that didn’t need to happen,” she said, according to the Associated Press.

But though she intends to put it to good use, Levine would much rather have not needed the money at all. “I would give $6 million for my right arm,” she said.

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