The US Supreme Court recently rendered a decision in the California State Court action involving several plaintiffs against Bristol-Myers Squibb that may impact how individuals who have been injured by defective products can bring suit against these large corporate manufacturers. Below is a link to that opinion:
In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, 678 plaintiffs (most of whom did not reside in California) filed a mass action against Bristol-Myer, the maker of a drug called Plavix, claiming the blood thinner caused them injury. The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 to overturn the California Court ruling that out-of-state plaintiffs could file this suit against Bristol-Myer in California despite the fact that Bristol-Myers is headquartered in New York.
This is an evolving situation—so too will be the impact beyond California. In fact, this ruling has already had consequences as evidenced by the declaration of a mistrial by a judge in Missouri (St. Louis) State Court on a Talcum Powder case against Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, Johnson & has asked the Missouri Court to throw out the prior Talc verdicts for out-of-state plaintiff.
The basic concern regards Due Process for the Defendants. Previously consumers could sue large companies in any state in which they did business. This new ruling seems to mean that consumers can only sue companies in their home state or possibly only in the state where the company is headquartered, or as Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “For a court to exercise specific jurisdiction over a claim there must be an ‘affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, an activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum state.’”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is well-worded in expressing her concerns (concerns that I share as an attorney representing clients injured by defective drugs and medical devices). She wrote, “Today, the Court takes its first step toward a …contraction of specific jurisdiction by holding that a corporation that engages in a nationwide course of conduct cannot be held accountable in a state court by a group of injured people unless all of those people were injured in the forum State. I fear the consequences of the Court’s decision today will be substantial. The majority’s rule will make it difficult to aggregate the claims of plaintiffs across the country whose claims may be worth little alone. It will make it impossible to bring a nationwide mass action in state court against defendants who are “at home” in different States. And it will result in piecemeal litigation and the bifurcation of claims. None of this is necessary. A core concern in this Court’s personal jurisdiction cases is fairness. And there is nothing unfair about subjecting a massive corporation to suit in a State for a nationwide course of conduct that injures both forum residents and nonresidents alike… Finally, and importantly, there is no serious doubt that the exercise of jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims is reasonable. Because Bristol-Myers already faces claims that are identical to the nonresidents’ claims in this suit, it will not be harmed by having to defend against respondents’ claims: Indeed, the alternative approach—litigating those claims in separate suits in as many as 34 different States—would prove far more burdensome… [T]he upshot of today’s opinion is that plaintiffs cannot join their claims together and sue a defendant in a State in which only some of them have been injured. That rule is likely to have consequences far beyond this case.”
It currently appears that groups of plaintiffs will still be able to come together (for example, in an MDL Multi-District Litigation) in Federal Court actions against a single defendant in that defendant’s home court (state). However, it will make it more difficult for people who have been injured by products made by large corporations to sue these companies for damages. Another repercussion could be that large corporations may consider moving headquarters to states where the laws are more pro-business.