In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, decided June 19, 2017, the court ruled that lawsuits involving out-of-state plaintiffs against out-of-state defendants could not be brought in California state court, even when California residents were bringing similar claims against the same defendant.
In this post, we’ll go over the specifics of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. lawsuit, the difference between class action and mass tort, and what experts think of the decision and how it may affect product liability cases in California and beyond.
The Plavix Blood Thinner Claims
The case involved eight complaints filed in California state court by a group of more than 600 plaintiffs — 82 California residents and 592 people from 33 other states. The plaintiffs alleged they were harmed by the drug Plavix, a dangerous blood thinner manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The company is incorporated in Delaware, headquartered in New York, and has substantial operations in New York and New Jersey.
Bristol-Myers Squibb claimed the nonresident plaintiffs lacked personal jurisdiction to sue in the state, but the California Supreme Court ruled that Bristol-Myers Squibb’s activities in the state of California, including the presence of research and laboratory facilities and sales representatives, gave plaintiffs specific jurisdiction there. It also based its ruling on the fact that the nonresidents’ allegations were similar to those of the California residents.
The Supreme Court of the United States disagreed. In an 8-1 ruling, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, the Court found that there was not a sufficient connection between the state and the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims to establish jurisdiction.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion, saying the California court’s approach “resembles a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.”
“The State Supreme Court found that specific jurisdiction was present without identifying any adequate link between the State and the nonresidents’ claims. As noted, the nonresidents were not prescribed Plavix in California, did not purchase Plavix in California, did not ingest Plavix in California, and were not injured by Plavix in California. The mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested Plavix in California — and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the nonresidents — does not allow the State to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.”
“What is needed — and what is missing here — is a connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue,” he added.
The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled, in Daimler AG v. Bauman in 2014, that general jurisdiction is limited to a corporation’s home state.
The Impact of the Bristol-Meyers Squibb Decision
Columbia University law professor Ronald Mann wrote an analysis of the Bristol-Myers Squibb opinion for SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court’s blog. He wrote that “plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking a forum for mass actions probably need to accept the reality that the defendant’s home jurisdiction often will be the only state-court forum for a consolidated nationwide suit.”
An analysis by the American Bar Association said, “The obvious immediate impact of Bristol-Meyers is the limitation of mass-tort litigation to states where the defendant is subject to general jurisdiction or where the defendants conducted activities out of which each and every claim arises.”
Justice Sotomayor found that scenario problematic and likely to result in “piecemeal litigation and the bifurcation of claims.”
“The Court’s opinion in this case will make it profoundly difficult for plaintiffs who are injured in different States by a defendant’s nationwide course of conduct to sue that defendant in a single, consolidated action,” she wrote.
Sotomayor noted that the Court did not address the issue of whether its ruling applies to a class action in which the named plaintiff who was injured in the state in which the lawsuit was filed seeks to represent a nationwide class of plaintiffs, not all of whom were injured there.
The Difference Between Class Action and Mass Tort
In order for claims to be certified as a class action, certain requirements must be met, including that there are questions of law and fact common to all the members of the class. In other words, the claims of all the plaintiffs must be nearly the same.
A mass tort case involves individual claims filed against the same defendant that may be consolidated into one court, but may not necessarily be similar enough or meet the other requirements to be certified as a class action. An advantage of consolidating individual cases as a mass tort is that law firms representing the plaintiffs can share resources, particularly in the discovery phase of the case.
“The majority’s rule will make it difficult to aggregate the claims of plaintiffs across the country whose claims may be worth little alone,” Sotomayor wrote.
The majority opinion offered alternative scenarios for bringing a consolidated lawsuit against a defendant. It stated that the decision does not prevent the plaintiffs from joining together in an action brought in the states that have general jurisdiction over Bristol-Myers Squibb, such as New York or Delaware.
“Alternatively, the plaintiffs who are residents of a particular State — for example, the 92 plaintiffs from Texas and the 71 from Ohio — could probably sue together in their home States,” the opinion stated.
There also could be a different result with consolidated actions filed in federal court, according to the American Bar Association analysis: “The more interesting development to watch for … is how federal district and appellate courts handle the application of this case in diversity actions.”
In the majority opinion, the Court wrote that “since our decision concerns the due process limits on the exercise of specific jurisdiction by a State, we leave open the question whether the Fifth Amendment imposes the same restrictions on the exercise of personal jurisdiction by a federal court.”
Plavix Lawsuits: What to Do If You’ve Been Injured
If you’ve been injured by Plavix and you live in Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky, Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz may be able to help. Our team consists of some of the best product liability and personal injury attorneys in the Buckeye State.
Contact us today for a free case evaluation. You’re under no obligation, and you won’t pay a cent until we win your case.