Supreme Court Curtails Multi-District Litigation and Plaintiffs’ Rights

Defective Drugs
tort reform
Supreme Court

By Lynn Shapiro, Staff Writer

This week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the several hundred plaintiffs from 33 states outside California can’t sue Bristol-Myers Squibb in California for injuries allegedly suffered while taking the blood thinner Plavix. Plaintiffs alleged that Plavix can lead to severe bleeding or death when blood levels become too high.

The ruling does not prevent in-state plaintiffs from suing in California courts for the harm they suffered as a result of Bristol-Myers’ sales and marketing campaign for Plavix. However, out-of-state plaintiffs have no right to pursue claims in California, the high court ruled. The ruling may also prevent many victims of other defective drugs or medical devices from suing corporations in states other than where the companies are based.

Lower California Court Rules for Plaintiffs

In a lower court ruling, plaintiffs had claimed jurisdiction over Bristol-Myers Squibb as the drug company conducted a significant amount of business in California.

Deciding Daimler AG v. Bauman, et al., the California Supreme Court on appeal found that California courts had specific jurisdiction of Bristol-Myers because of its vast business interests within the state.

In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled there was no evidence that marketing, promotion or distribution in California was involved in the injuries of the out-of-state plaintiffs.

The only way in which their claims relate to California is that the marketing and promotion of the drug at issue was conducted on a nationwide basis, the Court decided in a majority opinion written by conservative justice Samuel Alito, who said the plaintiffs could sue Bristol-Myers in other states including New York, where the company has its headquarters, and Delaware, where it’s incorporated.

Fierce Debate

“The business community has argued that plaintiffs should not be allowed to shop around for the most favorable court [in which to file lawsuits, namely California] while injured parties claim corporations are trying to deny them access to justice,” according to Reuters.

J&J Capitalizing on Ruling

Johnson & Johnson, charged with failing to warn women that talcum powder could cause ovarian cancer, is capitalizing on the ruling.

J&J has been fighting a glut of lawsuits over its talc-based products including Johnson’s Baby Powder, brought by approximately 5,950 women and their families. The company argues there’s no link between its baby powder and ovarian cancer.

A fifth of the J&J plaintiffs have cases pending in St. Louis state court, where juries in four trials have held J&J and a talc supplier accountable for $307 million in verdicts.

Mistrial Declared

The Supreme Court decision allowed a St. Louis judge to declare a mistrial in the latest J&J talc case, where two of the three plaintiffs are from out of state.

The Court ruling could affect other prominent personal injury cases, including Bayer’s Essure birth control device in California and Missouri and GlaxoSmithkline’s antidepressant Paxil in California and Illinois.

Sotomayor Dissents

In her lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor made clear the burdens placed on plaintiffs by the Court.

Sotomayor wrote “… 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….. And it will result in piecemeal litigation and the bifurcation of claims.

“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.

“Such a rule hands one more tool to corporate defendants determined to prevent the aggregation of individual claims and forces injured plaintiffs to bear the burden of bringing suit in what will often be far flung jurisdictions.”

Similar to Tort Reform

An attorney, who asked to remain anonymous as he works for a private company, said, “If you’re going to place limits on multi-district litigation, it’s a kind of tort reform measure because by doing away with multiple districts, it’s not only inefficient but lessens the likelihood of people suing.”

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