On June 9, 2017, the Supreme Court made its final ruling in the case of Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California, leaving many class action lawsuit plaintiffs wondering how the decision will affect their own cases. The 8-1 ruling overturned a California court decision, and stated that the California Superior Court did not have jurisdiction to oversee a case involving 575 out-of-state plaintiffs, despite the inclusion of 86 in-state residents.
At the center of the case were claims of neglect and false advertising in which Bristol-Myers allegedly failed to disclose the severe bleeding side effects and risk of stroke to patients for the anticoagulant drug. The resulting Plavix case worked its way up the rankings until it landed in front of the Supreme Court. Anticoagulants are no stranger to litigation. Juries began hearing Xarelto lawsuit arguments in 2017, and a fresh wave of Pradaxa lawsuits have been filed again, after the initial 2014 settlement cleared out nearly 4,000 pending cases.
In his analysis of the proceedings, Ronald Mann of SCOTUSBlog wrote that the ruling "could hardly surprise anybody who noticed the court's near-unanimous ruling" on the BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell case earlier in the month. Both cases dealt with the state courts' jurisdiction in class action lawsuits. In both cases, the Supreme Court aired on the side of conservatism, keeping to a strict reading of the letter of the law.
In any class action case brought to a state court, the court is issued jurisdiction in one of two ways:
General jurisdiction comes into play when either the plaintiff or defendant is in their home court. For instance, if the 86 California residents had entered their case alone, the California State Court could have cited general jurisdiction. Similarly, state courts in Delaware, where Bristol-Myers is incorporated, or New York, which houses the company's headquarters, would have general jurisdiction as well.
Specific jurisdiction arises when recorded injuries are shown to have a causal relationship to the state in which the case is filed. For example, a plaintiff who had been marketed or prescribed the drug in one state, despite residing in another state, might have sought specific jurisdiction. The case against Bristol-Myers was cited under California's "sliding scale" approach to specific jurisdiction, the claim being that because the out-of-state plaintiffs' case was so similar to those of the 86 Californians, they should be included in the lawsuit as well.
However, Justice Samuel Alito maintained in his majority opinion that because "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," they couldn't claim specific jurisdiction simply because their claim matched that of the in-state plaintiffs. Industry leaders agree, believing that practices similar to that of the California courts had been manipulated in the past to push cases through in states that were historically "plaintiff-friendly."
Why Class Action Plaintiffs are Concerned
Johnson & Johnson, who is currently the defendant in several thousand talcum powder lawsuits over the link between their talcum powder products and ovarian cancer sees the ruling as a victory. In a statement, the pharmaceutical company reflected that "the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Bristol-Myers Squibb matter requires reversal of the talc cases that are currently under appeal in St. Louis." The first aftershock came on Monday, June 19, when a St. Louis judge declared a mistrial.
Dissenting parties see the decision as a blow to the rights of class action groups. Indeed, the ruling may lead to the reversal of recent rulings via State Supreme Court appeals, and may have a significant impact on ongoing proceedings that involve plaintiffs from multiple states.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "The majority's rule will make it difficult to aggregate the claims of plaintiffs across the country whose claims may be worth little alone." One of the most likely reasons for plaintiffs to join a class is just this: Individual claims can be highly cost-ineffective, so class action litigation allows for the plaintiffs to consolidate with one legal team, lessening the burden on each individual injured party. If a plaintiff is unable to join a class in their own state due to a lack of demand, they will now need to either define a causal relationship to their injury in another state for specific jurisdiction (and may still not be able to join other plaintiffs, who might prefer to act under general jurisdiction in their state of residence), or bring the fight to the company's home state under general jurisdiction.
What Current And Future Plaintiffs Should Know
If you or a loved one is part of current legal proceedings, has recently won a case similar to this, or is looking to join a class, I urge you not to panic. This decision is not necessarily intended to benefit companies over individuals. Rather, it maintains an important distinction of individual states' rights when dealing with the residents of another state. In the eyes of the Supreme Court, it is a decision that reaffirms the need for fair separation between states, especially in cases dealing with companies that distribute nationwide.
- It does not negate your right to seek legal action after injury caused by a product or company.
- It does not automatically mean that recent decisions will be overturned.
- And it does not mean that multi-state classes will no longer be considered by the courts.
Speak with your legal team about how the Bristol-Myers Squibb decision may impact you, and what your legal rights are as a consumer. If you've recently joined a class from another state, or are aware that members of your class are NOT from your state, you may wish to adjust your case. If possible, you can still form a class that crosses state lines and seek action against a company on its home turf-- the state where it is headquartered or where products are primarily produced.
The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the appropriate information before moving forward into court proceedings.