Many citizens only hear of decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court if
that decision is considered “newsworthy” by the national media.
This lack of coverage will often cause a significant ruling to go unnoticed.
This appears to have happened in a recent (June 19, 2016) ruling that
denies out-of-state plaintiffs the standing to participate in state court lawsuits.
A summary of the case,
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, is as follows:
Bristol-Myers Squib (BMS) manufactures the drug Plavix, which is used by
those who have suffered strokes, heart attacks, or health problems related
to poor arterial circulation. A group of California residents filed a
product liability suit against BMS in a California court seeking damages
for alleged injuries related to taking the drug on a regular basis. The
California court, citing its “general jurisdiction” over the
Plavix lawsuit in California, allowed several hundred residents of other
states who claimed to have suffered injuries similar to those suffered
by the California plaintiffs to be added as plaintiffs to the California
lawsuit. BMS appealed the California court’s ruling to the 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the out-of-state plaintiffs.
BMS appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed (by a vote of 8-1) the
9th Circuit’s ruling and thus disallowed the inclusion of out-of-state
plaintiffs in the California state court lawsuit.
In writing the majority decision, Justice Samuel Alito described the Court’s
reasoning in the case by noting that:
- Although BMS had extensively marketed Plavix in California, the drug was
not manufactured in California nor was the company headquartered in California.
- The nonresident plaintiffs in the California lawsuit had not been prescribed
Plavix in California.
- The nonresident plaintiffs did not purchase Plavix in California.
- The nonresident plaintiffs did not ingest Plavix in California.
- The nonresident plaintiffs did not suffer their alleged injuries in California,
nor did they seek treatment in California.
Therefore, the court ruled, the nonresident plaintiffs had no legal standing
in the California lawsuit and the California court had thus erred in allowing
the nonresidents to join the lawsuit.
How will the decision affect consumers’ product liability lawsuits?
Despite the claims of some Internet pundits, the decision in this case
does nothing to restrict the ability of consumers to file a lawsuit alleging
a specific injury was caused by a defective product. It does, however,
reaffirm the Supreme Court’s previous rulings in cases such as
Daimler AG v. Bauman and
BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, both of which limit the jurisdiction of state courts to those cases in
which the alleged injuries or corporate malfeasance occurred within the
boundaries of a state.
Consumers still have several options available when it comes to lawsuits
alleging injury due to defective products such as medications, automobile
components, or any product manufactured at a location distant to where
it was sold or used.
In a class action lawsuit, many plaintiffs from multiple locations who
have suffered the same injury from the same product are “joined”
into a single “class” that is represented by a “lead”
plaintiff who represents the entire class before a court. The principle
advantage of joining a class action lawsuit is that the lead plaintiff
bears the costs of the lawsuit while the other plaintiffs get, essentially,
a “free ride”: if the lawsuit is successful, they are entitled
to a share of the damages awarded without having to bear any of the legal expenses.
On the other side of the equation, the bulk of any settlement in a class
action lawsuit goes to the lead plaintiff and attorney fees will consume
a sizeable portion of whatever remains of the damages awarded, leaving
relatively little for the class members. Most personal injury lawyers
will recommend that their clients avoid participating in class actions
because such participation will prevent their clients from pursuing their
own claims against the same defendant.
- Multi-jurisdiction Litigation
In instances where a product is alleged to have caused injuries of different
severity to plaintiffs living in separate locations, a personal injury
lawyer may ask a court to have a lawsuit declared as multi-district litigation.
If such a request is granted, the evidence presented in a particular case
can be cited in other lawsuits and the only issue to be decided in subsequent
lawsuits is the amount of damages to be awarded to the other plaintiffs.
Multi-jurisdiction litigation has the advantage of having one case decide
all issues of fact rather than having each plaintiff present the same
evidence over and over again, but in different courts. This allows each
plaintiff to collect damages that are in keeping with the extent of the
individual plaintiff’s injuries and other losses. If, however, the
initial lawsuit results in a ruling in favor of the defendant, the success
of all other cases is jeopardized.
As in any personal injury case, the advice of an experienced personal injury
lawyer should be sought and his or her recommendations given careful consideration
by those considering product liability lawsuits that involve multiple