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Michigan Senate votes to lift drug company immunity from lawsuits

A close up of a man in a suit in the Michigan State Legislature
Rick Pluta / MPRN
State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said repealing sweeping drug company immunity in Michigan is “a moral responsibility.”

A Michigan law that offers sweeping immunity to shield drug manufacturers from liability lawsuits is a step closer to being erased under a bill approved Wednesday by the Michigan Senate.

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) is the bill sponsor. He said Michigan is the only state in the country to offer that sort of protection to drug companies.

“If the idea is that in order to get more drug manufacturers here, we have to prevent our citizens from having the right to go into court when their loved one is killed by a pharmaceutical product or when a loved one’s harmed by the negligence of some company,” Irwin said. "That's awful."

An analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency cites testimony during committee hearings that Michigan is the only state that offers a blanket defense to drug manufacturers and distributors.

A digital board at the Michigan Legislature with several names in green and some in red indicating a vote tally.
Rick Pluta / MPRN
The Michigan Senate adopted a repeal of a drug company immunity law by a vote of 30-8. The eight “no” votes were from Republicans.

The analysis also says immunity protection has blocked the state from filing complaints and from joining class action lawsuits against drug companies.

That includes a 2011 lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, against Merck, and a negligence and public nuisance lawsuit filed in 2020 against opioid distributors by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“I think we have a moral responsibility," Irwin said. "We are going to stand up for our people and when folks harm them through negligence, there has to be a path of accountability.”

The bill was adopted on a 30-8 bipartisan vote and now goes to the Michigan House. The opposition votes were all cast by Senate Republicans.

"I think the state’s been pretty far over on one side,” said state Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township). The Senate minority leader voted against the bill.

“We don’t need to go full sue-happy on the other side."

Nesbit said he is open to changing the law, but Democrats are giving away too much to trial lawyers.

"I think there’s a middle ground to be reached and they weren’t willing to reach a middle ground," Nesbit said. "And that’s disappointing.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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