On Access and Accountability: Two Supreme Court Rulings on Generic Drugs

By Marcia Boumil and Gregory Curfman

In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court issued two important rulings in cases involving the marketing of generic drugs. In Federal Trade Commission v. Actavis, the Court addressed the law governing a controversial pharmaceutical marketing practice known as reverse payment agreements, or pay for delay – a byproduct of the Hatch-Waxman Act.  This occurs when a generic drug company identifies a vulnerable patent held by a brand-name drug manufacturer and seeks Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for a generic version before the patent expires, provoking a lawsuit by the brand-name company for alleged infringement. A subsequent settlement involves the brand-name company paying the generic company to delay commercialization of its product (but not beyond the expiration of the patent). The FDA alleged that reverse payment agreements violate antitrust laws. The Supreme Court held that their validity would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis using the “rule of reason” standard. According to this standard, only those agreements that restrain trade will be viewed as violations of anti-trust law.

In the second case, Mutual Pharmaceutical v. Bartlett, the Court affirmed its 2011 ruling in Mensing v. PLIVA and held that generics manufacturers are substantially immune from civil claims regarding injuries caused by their products whether the tort claim be based upon failure to warn (Mensing) or design defect (Bartlett). The basis of the decision resides in the FDA requirement that generic drug labels be consistent with the label of the brand-name equivalent. Just days after the Bartlett decision issued, the FDA indicated its intent to propose a revision to the labeling requirements for generic drugs to create parity with branded drugs. If adopted, this revision could vitiate the law set forth in Mensing and Bartlett.

For more coverage of these cases, see the New England Journal of Medicine essay here.