Limited pharmaceutical, asbestos protections added back to tort bill as it clears Senate
Posted June 11, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Pharmaceutical manufacturers would have limited protections against lawsuits claiming they failed to warn consumers about problems with their drugs under a package of legal reforms that cleared the state Senate Wednesday.
"This does not bar any plaintiff from their day in court," Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, said on the Senate floor.
Barringer was explaining an amendment that added back to the bill a sliver of a consumer liability measure that was so controversial that the Senate Judiciary 1 Committee removed it entirely on Tuesday.
That earlier measure would have given manufacturers wide-ranging protections from consumer lawsuits as long as a federal or state agency of some kind – such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – had given the products an approval. It would have blocked North Carolina residents from filing any number of consumer claims against faulty products, such as medical devices that cause harm when implanted.
The Barringer amendment applies only to drugs, not to medical devices or any other kind of product.
Other parts of the measure would require that lawsuits seeking to invalidate state laws be heard by three-judge panels and provide protections to North Carolina companies that are sued by patent trolls trying to enforce bogus intellectual property claims.
As it was originally drafted, the bill would have erected barriers to plaintiffs hoping to make claims in asbestos lawsuits. That measure, too, proved controversial and was stripped by the Senate Judiciary 1 Committee, with members saying North Carolina would be nearly unique among states.
So, on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, sought to amend the bill to protect what he described as "innocent successors."
The measure is aimed at helping Crown Cork & Seal Co., which never itself manufactured products with asbestos. However, it bought a company, Mundet Asbestos, that did manufacture such products, and it has been sued for damage that prior company caused.
"They had the misfortune of buying this company," Rucho said, explaining that his bill would cap Crown Cork's liability.
The measure drew concerns from Barringer and other lawyers who serve in the Senate.
"We are taking a very serious step here to monkey with the successor liability laws of our state," said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson.
Companies, he said, should not be granted immunity for bad decisions, including decisions related to what companies they bought.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, asked Rucho how many companies, other than Crown Cork, the measure would apply to. Rucho said he didn't know.
Hartsell said that meant the state was either blindly passing protections for companies in unknown circumstances or passing a law that was an unconstitutional boon to one company.
The amendment passed, but several Republicans voted against.
However, the overall bill passed unanimously, with even those who opposed the asbestos measure voting for it.