In three key business rulings handed down Wednesday, the Supreme Court continued its trend toward freeing companies from the conflicting regulation of 50 different states in favor of one federal regime.
The Court favored federal pre-emption over state laws and state court remedies in the areas of medical device regulation, interstate shipping of tobacco and arbitration of contract disputes.
In announcing one of the cases from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia said the day's decisions made it clear that "we consider it part of our business" to sort out the balance between federal and state law.
But it was not a clean sweep for business Wednesday. In LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, the Court ruled that employees can sue employers under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act for mismanaging their 401(k) retirement plans.
Of Wednesday's pre-emption cases, Riegel v. Medtronic may have the broadest impact. The Court ruled against the estate of Charles Riegel, who died after a catheter made by Medtronic malfunctioned during heart surgery.
Riegel sued in federal court, invoking New York state common law to argue for liability and damages. Like lower courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal Medical Device Amendments of 1976 specifically preclude states from imposing their own requirements on the makers of federally regulated medical devices.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the opinion authored by Scalia. Ginsburg called the ruling a "radical curtailment" of state law remedies that Congress did not intend when it passed the law.
Jon Haber, head of the American Association for Justice, the organization for trial lawyers, criticized the ruling and said it "should be narrowly viewed as applying only to certain medical device cases and should not serve as precedent for cases involving drugs and other consumer products."