Supreme Court Deals Blow to Out-of-State Plaintiffs in Personal Injury Cases

In a series of end-of-term decisions by the Supreme Court, one decision has quietly made it harder for plaintiffs from diverse states to sue an out-of-state defendant in a class action lawsuit. The case, titled Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, alters the rules governing the procedures whereby a particular state’s courts can exercise jurisdiction over litigants who do not live in that state. Before we discuss the case at issue, we’ll first give a general overview of how courts decide which cases they can hear.

A Primer on Personal Jurisdiction

In International Shoe v. Washington, the Supreme Court held that a particular state court (known as the “forum state”) could exercise jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants if the defendant had “minimum contacts” with the state. In subsequent cases, the court found that there are two ways of finding “minimum contacts.” The first is “general jurisdiction,” which requires the defendant to have “systematic and continuous contacts” with the forum state such that the defendant is at “home” in the state. If the defendant’s actions meet this test, then he or she can be sued for any actions in the state. The second is “specific jurisdiction,” which allows lawsuits against an out-of-state defendant only if the suit “arises out of or relates to the defendant’s contact with the forum” state.

Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court

In the current case, Bristol-Myers Squibb was sued in a California state court for injuries caused by its blood thinner Plavix. Eighty-six California residents sued, including several hundred out-of-state plaintiffs who claimed the same injuries. The state court found that it could not exercise general jurisdiction because the company was incorporated in Delaware and had its principal places of business in New York and New Jersey, and could not be considered “home” in California. The plaintiffs, however, argued that the court could nonetheless exercise specific jurisdiction because their lawsuits arose out of the defendant’s marketing and sale of Plavix in California. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that there was no specific jurisdiction here because there was no link between the state of California and the nonresidents’ claims. Justice Alito wrote that, “The relevant plaintiffs are not California residents and do not claim to have suffered harm in that State. In addition … all the conduct giving rise to the nonresidents’ claims occurred elsewhere. It follows that the California courts cannot claim specific jurisdiction.”

Implications for Personal Injury Plaintiffs

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that “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.” Justice Alito countered by offering three alternatives to plaintiffs: They could either sue together in the state where the defendant is “home,” they could file separate suits in each of their state courts, or they could sue in federal court. However, these alternatives don’t leave much room for claims in which too few plaintiffs are injured in a state to provide for a mass action. They also leave plaintiffs who are suing foreign corporations at a significant disadvantage, since foreign corporations are not “home” anywhere in the United States. Thus, as a result of Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, it will now be much harder for plaintiffs from different states to join together in suing an out-of-state defendant.

Contact an Atlanta Personal Injury Attorney Today for a Free Consultation

If you have been injured by someone in Georgia or any other state, contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling 404.255.6677. We serve the entire state of Georgia, including the following locations: Muscogee County, Walker County, and Whitfield County.

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