Supreme Court Slams Door on Out-of-State Plaintiffs’ Suits

In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, multiple plaintiffs sued Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMS) in a California state court to recover damages allegedly caused by their use of BMS’ anti-clotting drug, Plavix.

Out-of-State Plaintiffs' Suits

Dona Szak

July 31, 2017 04:26 PM

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restricts a state court’s ability to entertain a lawsuit against a non-resident defendant. The U.S. Supreme Court recently clarified the scope of jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants in tort suits arising under state law. In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California,[1] multiple plaintiffs sued Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMS) in a California state court to recover damages allegedly caused by their use of BMS’ anti-clotting drug, Plavix. Most of the plaintiffs resided outside California. All asserted tort claims under California state law.

BMS, pointing to an insufficient connection between the non-resident plaintiffs’ injuries and the California forum, challenged the California court’s jurisdiction to hear the claims of the out-of-state plaintiffs. The trial court initially ruled that it had general jurisdiction over BMS. In a series of appeals through the California state courts, the California Supreme Court ultimately held that general jurisdiction was lacking, but in a divided opinion, that specific jurisdiction existed. The California Supreme Court’s majority based its determination of specific jurisdiction on a sliding scale. The court articulated its approach as, “the more wide-ranging the defendant’s forum contacts, the more readily is shown a connection between the forum contacts and the claim.” As a result of BMS’ wide range of business contacts in California, the court ruled that this specific jurisdiction properly could be exercised.

Here, there was little question that BMS had a strong presence in California. BMS engaged in research activities in California, employing some 160 employees at five research centers in the state. BMS also employed about 250 sales representatives in California. However, BMS was not incorporated or headquartered in California, nor did BMS develop, manufacture, label, seek regulatory approval, or plan marketing strategy for Plavix in California. Rather, BMS was incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in New York. Plavix was developed and prepared for the market largely in those two states, and not in California.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the California Supreme Court’s sliding scale approach to specific jurisdiction, characterizing it as “a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.” The court discussed the difference between general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction. For general jurisdiction to exist, the defendant must be “at home” in the forum state. When a court has general jurisdiction over a defendant, the court may hear practically any type of tort claim against the defendant, even if the defendant’s conduct occurred in a different state. An individual defendant is considered “at home” in the state of his or her domicile. A corporation typically is “at home” in its state of incorporation and in the state of its principal place of business. In its “home” state, then, an individual or corporation properly may be sued on virtually any claim that arises at any place in the country. Applying these principles to BMS, the company is “at home” in Delaware (its place of incorporation) and New York (its principal place of business). Under principles of general jurisdiction, BMS could be sued for virtually any tort in either of those two states.

But a company may be sued outside its home state only if specific jurisdiction exists. The Supreme Court in Bristol-Myers Squibb explained that, for a court to have specific jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, “the suit must arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contact with the forum. … There must be an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, an activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum [s]tate. Where there is no such connection, specific jurisdiction is lacking regardless of the extent of a defendant’s unconnected activities” in the state. Thus a defendant’s business activities in a state other than its “home” state, no matter how extensive those activities are, will not support specific jurisdiction unless the suit arises out of those particular activities.

Here, BMS did not dispute that the California state court had specific jurisdiction over the claims of the California plaintiffs. The California plaintiffs presumably were prescribed Plavix, purchased Plavix, and ingested the drug in that state. But according to the Supreme Court, these facts did not authorize the California court to adjudicate claims of non-California plaintiffs when the conduct giving rise to those plaintiffs’ claims did not occur in California. The court explained that a defendant’s relationship with a third party—here, the California residents—does not, by itself, provide a basis for specific jurisdiction over the claims of other parties.

The court was not persuaded by the fact that all plaintiffs suffered similar harm from a similar course of conduct or that judicial efficiency would be served by having all of their claims heard in California. The court pointed out that its decision leaves open the option for plaintiffs within a single state to join together in one suit. As a further option, all plaintiffs could join together in consolidated actions in Delaware or New York, whose courts would have general jurisdiction over BMS.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor took issue with her colleagues’ reading of the Due Process clause and the court’s precedent. Since the touchstone of a jurisdiction analysis is fairness to the defendant, “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.” The dissenting justice expressed concerns about the ramifications of the court’s decision, including the difficulty of bringing a nationwide mass action in state court against defendants who are “at home” in different states.

While Bristol Myers-Squibb provides guidance on jurisdictional principles applicable to individual defendants, it remains to be seen how courts will deal with the question of piecemeal litigation when all defendants cannot be joined in a single forum.


[1] Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, No. 16-466, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 3873, rev’g Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, 1 Cal.5th 783, 377 P.3d 874 (Cal. 2016). In this article, internal quotations and citations are omitted.


Dona Szak represents foreign and domestic clients in business and commercial matters. She has taken cases through all stages of litigation: pre-lawsuit investigation, trial, appeal, and judgment collection. She has designed and implemented strategies for resolving complex commercial problems. By conducting preventive counseling, she has helped her clients achieve favorable resolutions to their business controversies, often without the necessity of filing or defending lawsuits. As co-counsel in an ERISA action, her successes include alleging that plan fiduciaries breached duties of loyalty and prudence by selecting and maintaining inappropriate funds for a company’s 401(k) plan and in negotiating a business resolution of on behalf of an automotive parts supplier facing a lawsuit against a major automobile manufacturer for misrepresentation and breach of contract. Learn more at

Related Articles

The Parade of Horribles

by Amy Gunn

Lawsuits about a blood-thinning drug that prevents platelets from clumping together now prevents plaintiffs from joining together to bring state law claims against a corporation when not every plaintiff was harmed in that state.

Bristol-Myers Squibb v Superior Court of CA

Will the Bristol-Myers Decision of Personal Jurisdiction Further Consolidate Litigation in MDLs?

by Jeffrey Travers and Michael J. Miller

We were able to obtain a verdict for Mr. Cooper within a year of opting for the state courts.

Bristol-Myers MDLs

Divide and Conquer: Plaintiffs Need a Single Forum that Accommodates the Realities of Contemporary Economic Activity

by David A. Mazie and David M. Estes

The growth of mass tort litigation tracks with industries’ shift to mass marketing and distribution of pharmaceutical and consumer products on a national scale.

Contemporary Economic Activity

Supreme Court further Restricts Where Plaintiffs Can Sue in Mass Torts

by Gregory Bubalo and Katherine A. Dunnington

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California will significantly impact the plaintiffs’ choices of forums for the filing of mass torts actions.

Plaintiffs No Longer Sue in Mass Torts

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco

by Clifford J. Zatz and Josh Thomas Foust

The decision “may make it impossible to bring certain mass actions at all.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Mass Tort

Trending Articles

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power

by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

The U.S. Best Lawyers Voting Season Is Open

by Best Lawyers

The voting season for the 31st edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and the 5th edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America is officially underway, and we are offering some helpful advice to this year’s voters.

Golden figures of people standing on blue surface connected by white lines

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

by Best Lawyers

The 2021 Global Issue features top legal talent from the most recent editions of Best Lawyers and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch worldwide.

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset

Best Lawyers Voting Is Now Open

by Best Lawyers

Voting has begun in several countries across the globe, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Below we offer dates, details and answers to voting-related questions to assist with the voting process.

Hands holding smartphone with five stars above phone

Inflation Escalation

by Ashley S. Wagner

Inflation and rising costs are at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we enter 2023. The current volatile market makes it more important than ever to understand the rent escalation clauses in current and future commercial lease agreements.

Suited figure in front of rising market and inflated balloon

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

Announcing The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2024

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ for 2024, including the exclusive "Law Firm of the Year" awards.

Sky view of South Africa town and waterways

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide

by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide is now live and includes recognitions for all Best Lawyers family law awards. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Man entering home and hugging two children in doorway