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Amy Gunn

/ Best Lawyers

Lawsuits about a blood-thinning1 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.

On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco, et al., 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017) that California lacked specific personal jurisdiction over claims brought by 592 out-of-state plaintiffs in a mass tort action joined with 86 California plaintiffs against Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (Bristol-Myers) for injury of increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and internal bleeding from the blood-thinning drug Plavix.

Incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in New York, Bristol-Myers operates its multibillion dollar pharmaceutical business worldwide and throughout the United States, including California. Bristol-Myers has research and laboratory facilities in California, but its development and manufacturing activities for Plavix took place outside California. Bristol-Myers sold and advertised Plavix in California through a nationwide campaign and contracted with a California distributor. Availing itself of the California market, Bristol-Myers sold nearly 187 million Plavix pills in California between 2006 and 2012, profiting around $1 billion. While the resident plaintiffs obtained and ingested Plavix in California, the jurisdictional issue arose for the nonresident plaintiffs who were not prescribed to, injured, or treated in California yet shared identical claims with the residents.

The Supreme Court held California violated the Due Process Clause by exercising jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims. Writing for the majority, Justice Alito treated the decision as a natural extension of the court’s jurisprudence on federalist checks over state power. He stressed the danger of asserting jurisdiction over nonresident claims involving no harm in the state.

“The effect of the Court’s opinion today is to eliminate nationwide mass actions in any State other than those in which a defendant is essentially at home,” wrote Justice Sotomayor, dissenting.2 Sotomayor lamented the majority ruling as a constriction of personal jurisdiction and a break with precedent, particularly regarding notions of fair play and substantial justice, which underlie personal jurisdiction rationale. After all, she reasoned, Bristol-Myers would not need to defend itself against new claims, as the nonresidents’ claims matched the residents’ claims, and arguably litigating the claims separately across as many as 34 states would be more burdensome on the corporation—not to mention fatal to most individual claims that are either too small to be brought on their own or in other ways too burdensome on potential plaintiffs. Consolidation is efficient and fair to defendants and plaintiffs alike as well as to the states seeking to regulate resident and nonresident businesses operating within their borders. The majority’s holding offers a bleak future for plaintiffs unable to consolidate claims and in turn unable to hold corporations accountable for their national and international courses of action.

The decision has already rippled through the lower courts. For example, a St. Louis Circuit Court judge immediately declared a mistrial in a talcum powder case against Johnson & Johnson, a New Jersey company, where a Missouri plaintiff allegedly harmed in-state was joined with non-Missouri plaintiffs allegedly harmed out-of-state. The full ramifications of this decision are yet to be seen but certainly the practice of consolidating in-state and out-of-state plaintiffs’ claims in state court where the defendant is not “at home” appears to be barred.

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[1] Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco, et al., 137 S.Ct. 1773, 1783 (2017).

[2] Id. at 1789.

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Amy Gunn has dedicated her legal career to advocating for clients and their families after their lives have been devastated by the careless and/or reckless conduct of a doctor, hospital, or corporation. Whether you have been injured due to a doctor’s or hospital’s medical negligence or a corporation’s decision to sell a defective product, Amy has the expertise and insight to help. Amy is a member of numerous state and national professional associations and organizations, and has served as an adjunct professor of law at the Washington University School of Law since 2001 and is regularly asked to give presentations to her fellow attorneys on legal and ethical topics. She has received the highest ethical and professional rating of AV Preeminent® from Martindale-Hubbell® and is on the executive committee of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys where she works hard to ensure that our civil justice system provides equal access to injured individuals.