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Apr 26, 2017 Laurie J. Hepler
SCOTUS Hears Specific-Jurisdiction Case From California

No clear leaning emerges from a review of the April 25 U.S. Supreme Court argument in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California.

The “specific” personal jurisdiction issue presented:  whether a defendant can be sued in a state court for injury claims that would be exactly the same regardless of that defendant’s limited activities in the state. That is, the claims don’t arise out of the defendant’s in-state activities, as the Court usually requires for “specific” personal jurisdiction.

Context: Over 650 plaintiffs sued Bristol-Myers Squibb in California for injuries caused by Plavix. Only 86 were Californians; the rest live elsewhere and were injured in their home states. In addition, Bristol-Myers Squibb is based on the east coast and didn’t research or manufacture Plavix in California.  It did promote Plavix in a nationwide campaign, but no advertising in California could have affected any non-resident plaintiff.

Key complicating factors: There are some California plaintiffs, and there’s a proper California defendant, the drug’s distributor McKesson. The efficiency of allowing the whole suit to proceed in one place, and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s ability to predict that it could be sued in any (or every) state for at least somebody’s Plavix injuries, seemed to hold significant sway. As is common in specific jurisdiction cases, no clear rule presented itself, with the possible exception of the defendant’s insistence that due process requires any and every plaintiff to show that his or her claim arises from the defendant’s in-state activity.

Bottom line: The Justices seemed unsatisfied with both sides’ positions. Even a narrow affirmance of the California Supreme Court’s 2016 decision would permit far more multi-plaintiff lawsuits than current precedent does. A decision should issue by the end of June.

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