Amplitude is neither smart enough nor stupid enough to comment on any of the decisions the Supreme Court handed down in the past week. None of the legal or constitutional principles involved in these cases implicate limb loss directly, and reactions to the Court’s rulings are as diverse and passionate within the limb-loss community as everywhere else. We can’t add any clarity to the discussion, and it wouldn’t serve our purpose (nor anyone else’s) to stir the pot.
But the week’s events did get us wondering: When did the Justices last consider limb loss in any substantive way? We recently became aware of one amputee-related case that reached the Supreme Court, and was argued by an amputee lawyer—it’s covered in our upcoming July/August issue. With a bit of additional research, we turned up three more SCOTUS cases related to limb loss in this century.
Here’s what we were able to find—if we missed anything, write us at [email protected]. We didn’t go into cases (and there are several) that helped shape the nation’s limb-loss jurisprudence in other high courts, including state supreme courts and US Courts of Appeals. That’s for another day, perhaps.
So much for the caveats. On to the evidence.
Wyeth v. Levine (2009)
In a case that had sweeping implications, a 6-3 Court majority upheld a $6.7 million state court judgment for Diane Levine, a Vermont musician who lost her right arm to an adverse reaction from an intravenous injection of the drug Phenergan. Levine sued the manufacturer, Wyeth, for negligence and prevailed in state court on the grounds that Wyeth hadn’t provided adequate notice of the product’s risks. Wyeth appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that it should be immune from state-court claims because Phenergan fulfilled federal product-labeling guidelines required by the US Food and Drug Administration, which had approved the drug. “Wyeth fully complied with federal law in its labeling of Phenergan, which provided clear instructions and warnings about its use,” a company attorney argued. But the majority concluded that “Congress did not intend FDA oversight to be the exclusive means of ensuring drug safety and effectiveness. . . . [W]hen the risk of gangrene from IV-push injection of Phenergan became apparent, Wyeth had a duty to provide a warning that adequately described that risk.”
Wyeth v. Levine made national headlines and has become a law-school textbook staple for its intricate parsing of legal issues such as Congressional intent and regulatory pre-emption. The votes didn’t break down along the usual ideological lines; the majority opinion’s signees ranged from the conservative Clarence Thomas to the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with swing voter Anthony Kennedy thrown in for good measure.
PGA Tour v. Martin (2001)
This well-remembered case, an early test of the Americans With Disabilities Act, centered on professional golfer Casey Martin’s request to ride in a golf cart during PGA Tour competition. Although he is now an above-knee amputee, Martin had both legs at the time of the initial dispute (1998), but he was at constant risk of limb loss due to a rare circulatory disease. The condition made it physically dangerous for him to walk a full 18 holes (about five miles), as required under PGA tournament rules. Martin argued that such rules plainly violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA: By denying him the use of a cart, the PGA was essentially excluding Martin from participation on the sole basis of his disability. But the Tour contended that all players must compete under identical rules, and a cart exemption would give Martin an unfair advantage.
If that argument sounds familiar, it’s the same one international athletic bodies have used to exclude amputee sprinters from competing on running blades against able-bodied athletes. Golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer supported the PGA with sworn testimony that walking is part of the athletic challenge in elite golf tournaments, a test of stamina and endurance, and therefore Martin’s use of a cart would be unfair to other competitors. But their assertions didn’t persuade any of the judges who heard the case at the District Court or Appeals Court level. As one wrote: “[Martin] is in significant pain when he walks, and even when he is getting in and out of the cart. With each step, he is at risk of fracturing his tibia and hemorrhaging. . . . To perceive that the cart puts him—with his condition—at a competitive advantage is a gross distortion of reality. As he put it, he would gladly trade the cart for a good leg.”
Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter characterized the golf cart as a necessary accommodation that “allow[s] Martin the chance to qualify for and compete in the athletic events [the PGA] offers to those members of the public who have the skill and desire to enter. That is exactly what the ADA requires.” It should be added that Antonin Scalia’s dissent is widely admired for its artful (albeit acidly sarcastic) prose, even among those who disagreed with his legal reasoning.
Dan’s City Used Cars v. Pelkey (2013)
When Robert Pelkey went in for a foot amputation, surgical complications extended his hospital stay by several weeks. Meanwhile a big snowstorm rolled in, and Pelkey—still bed-ridden—was completely unable to move his car (parked at home in its usual spot) to make way for the snowplow, as his apartment lease required. The landlord called Dan’s City and had the car towed, which Pelkey didn’t learn until he was finally discharged nearly two months later. When he tried to retrieve the vehicle, Dan’s City told him (falsely) his car had been deemed unclaimed property and sold it at auction.
Hell of a way to start one’s adaptation to limb loss.
Pelkey sued, but a state court judge ruled that the towing company’s actions, while heartless, were completely legal under a federal law governing vehicle transport. But the New Hampshire Supreme Court deemed the federal law inapplicable and found Dan’s City liable under a state law governing vehicle storage (as opposed to transport). A unanimous US Supreme Court affirmed the NH high court. “Property stored after delivery is no longer ‘in transit,'” observed Ginsburg dryly in the SCOTUS opinion—and since Pelkey incurred harm due to Dan’s improper vehicle storage, he was entitled to damages under state law.