Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson
478 U.S. 804, 106 S. Ct. 3229, 92, L. Ed. 2d 650 (1986)

  • A pregnant Mrs. Thompson took some drugs manufactured by Merrell that caused her kids to have birth defects. The Thompsons sued.
    • The Thompsons sued for negligence, breach of warranty, strict liability and fraud.
      • They also claimed that Merrell violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FDCA)(a Federal law).
  • Merrell moved the case from State Court to Federal Court. The Thompsons appealed to get the case moved back to State Court.
    • Merrell argued that there was federal question jurisdiction (under 28 USC § 1331), since Thompson was suing for violation of a Federal law (the FDCA), the case should be heard in a Federal Court.
    • Merrell knew that the local Federal judge had recently dismissed a similar case!
  • The Federal Trial Court denied the Thompson’s motion. The Thompsons appealed.
  • The Federal Appellate Court reversed. Merrell appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed and sent the case back to State Court.
    • The US Supreme Court found that there wasn’t sufficient federal question jurisdiction for the Federal Court to hear the case.
    • The Court found that federal question jurisdiction exists only if the plaintiff’s right of relief depended necessarily on a substantial question of Federal law.
      • In this case, it wasn’t really the violation of the FDCA that the Thompsons were depending on to win, it was more that they were claiming negligence. They didn’t need the FDCA to make their case.
    • The Court found that Congress never intended to create a private cause of action under FDCA. The fact that there may be a violation of FDCA by Merrell does not give the Thompsons a private Federal cause of action under this Statute.
      • So, in the Court’s opinion, the Thompsons couldn’t have gotten to a Federal court by using the FDCA even if that’s what they were actively trying to do.
  • The basic point of this case is that just because there may be a violation of some Federal law, there is no federal question jurisdiction, unless Congress specifically says that there is.