Update: Supreme Court Declines Review of Methylmercury Case With Potential Preemption Implications

An update to a case we’ve been following: the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit involving state-law claims over methylmercury content in canned tuna.

The Supreme Court’s order in Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC v. Fellner leaves in place the Third Circuit’s ruling that allowed the plaintiff to sue the maker of Chicken of the Sea products over methylmercury poisoning she allegedly suffered after consuming canned tuna almost exclusively for five years.

In its petition for a writ of certiorari, Tri-Union Seafoods argued that the Supreme Court should review the case to determine, among other things, whether regulatory actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act preempt state-law claims based on a failure to warn of the risks of methylmercury in tuna products. The Supreme Court declined to review the case without comment.

California Appeals Court: No Mercury Warnings Required on Canned Tuna

The California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District has upheld a trial court ruling that canned tuna sold in California need not warn consumers about methylmercury.

 

In 2004, the State of California sued three tuna companies: Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC; Del Monte Corporation; and Bumble Bee Foods, LLC. The state argued, among other things, that California’s Proposition 65 requires the companies to provide warnings to pregnant women and women of childbearing age that the canned tuna the companies distribute and sell contains trace amounts of methylmercury, a chemical that can cause harm to a developing fetus. After a six-week trial in 2006, the lower court ruled against the state, holding that (i) Proposition 65 was preempted because it conflicts with federal law, (ii) the amount of methylmercury in canned tuna does not rise to the threshold level that would require a warning on the product, and (iii) the tuna companies are exempt from Proposition 65’s warning requirements because virtually all methylmercury is “naturally occurring.”

 

The state appealed, and the appellate court recently issued a decision upholding the tuna companies’ victory on the sole basis that substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that methylmercury is naturally occurring in canned tuna. Proposition 65 contains several exemptions to its warning requirements, one of which provides that there is no duty to warn if a chemical is naturally occurring in food. Significantly, the appellate court did not address the preemption or threshold level findings of the trial court. The court also posited scenarios that could lead to a renewed Proposition 65 claim against the tuna companies (see page 28 of the decision).

 

No word yet on whether the state plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Asked to Hear Preemption Case Involving Methylmercury; FDA Issues Draft Documents Regarding Consuming Commercial Fish

By Guest Blogger Bryan Anderson

The maker of Chicken of the Sea products has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in a case we reported on involving preemption of state-law tort claims. In August 2008, the Third Circuit in Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC reversed the district court and held that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actions regarding methylmercury content in tuna did not preempt the plaintiff’s claims under the New Jersey Product Liability Act. Tri-Union Seafoods’ certiorari petition presents two questions for the Supreme Court’s consideration:

1. Whether state-law tort claims based upon failure to warn of the risks of methylmercury in tuna fish products are preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act and regulatory actions of the FDA, including a written determination that state-law warning requirements concerning methylmercury in tuna products are preempted by federal law and denial of a petition to require such warnings; and

2. Whether a “presumption against preemption” applies in conflict preemption cases.

If the Court grants the petition and hears the case, it certainly will have implications concerning local and state labeling requirements vis-à-vis federal agency action. Stay tuned; we will update you on this case as the plaintiff/respondent submits her brief opposing the petition.

Also related to methylmercury, the FDA yesterday published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the availability of two draft documents assessing the benefits and risks of consuming commercial fish.

The first document attempts to quantify the impact of eating commercial fish on three health endpoints: (i) fetal neurodevelopment, (ii) risk of fatal coronary heart disease, and (iii) risk of fatal stroke. The FDA notes that “[e]ach of these health endpoints has been associated in the scientific literature both with adverse effects of methylmercury exposure (including through fish consumption) and beneficial effects of regular fish consumption.”

The second document provides an overview of published scientific literature regarding beneficial effects of fish consumption and Omega-3 fatty acids for neurodevelopmental and cardiovascular endpoints.