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Mass actions have come to an end in state courts, Sotomayor laments

By Record News | Jun 20, 2017

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justices have put an end to mass actions in state courts against two or more defendants, according to a dissent they don’t dispute. 

The dissent, by Justice Sandra Sotomayor, mourned the Court’s June 19 rejection of California state court jurisdiction over drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb. 

“It will make it impossible to bring a nationwide mass action in state courts against defendants who are ‘at home’ in different states,” Sotomayor wrote, 

“There will be no state where both defendants are at home, and so no state in which the suit can proceed.” 

That suited the other eight Justices. 

They held that plaintiffs could join together for consolidated actions in courts with general jurisdiction over a defendant, or they could sue in their home courts.  

The case began years ago, as eight suits claiming injuries from blood thinner Plavix. 

Among 678 plaintiffs, 86 resided in California. 

Texas topped that number with 91, and Ohio came close with 71. 

Plaintiffs also sued McKesson Corp., a California company that distributes drugs for Bristol-Myers Squibb and other drug makers. 

Bristol-Myers Squibb moved to quash service of summons from plaintiffs in other states, and the California Superior Court denied the motion. 

The California Court of Appeal denied a petition for a writ. 

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court tightened general jurisdiction in a case involving automaker Daimler Chrysler. 

In light of that decision, the California Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to vacate its order denying relief. 

The Court of Appeal changed its logic but not its result, finding the state court lacked general jurisdiction but could exercise specific jurisdiction. 

California Supreme Court Justices affirmed the ruling, on the basis of extensive contacts between Bristol-Myers Squibb and California. 

They held that the more wide ranging the contacts, the more readily a plaintiff could show connection to a forum. 

Three Justices dissented, finding the majority rendered specific jurisdiction indistinguishable from general jurisdiction for many categories of cases. 

Their view prevailed in Washington. 

Justice Joseph Alito wrote that the California court’s definition of specific jurisdiction “resembles a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.” 

Alito described general jurisdiction as all purpose, specific jurisdiction as case linked. 

He wrote that general jurisdiction for an individual depends on domicile, and general jurisdiction for a corporation depends on domicile or its equivalent. 

He wrote that a court with general jurisdiction may hear any claim against a defendant, even if all incidents underlying the claim occurred in a different state. 

“Specific jurisdiction is very different,” he wrote. 

Alito wrote that it requires affiliation between the forum and the controversy. 

He quoted a precedent from 1958, that restrictions on personal jurisdiction are more than a guarantee of immunity from inconvenient or distant litigation. 

Quoting from that decision, he wrote, “They are a consequence of territorial limitations on the power of the respective states.”

He quoted a precedent from 1945, that continuous activity within a state “is not enough to support the demand that the corporation be amenable to suits unrelated to that activity.” 

“The present case illustrates the danger of the California approach,” Alito wrote. 

“The state court found that specific jurisdiction was present without identifying any adequate link between the State and the nonresidents’ claims.” 

Sotomayor called the decision a first step toward contraction of specific jurisdiction similar to the contraction of general jurisdiction in 2014. 

She wrote that the majority appeared to concede that the case was not about fairness but was about power. 

“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,” she wrote. 

She predicted piecemeal litigation and bifurcation of claims. 

“And there is nothing unfair about subjecting a massive corporation to suit in a state for a nationwide course of conduct that injures both forum residents and nonresidents alike,” she wrote. 

Sotomayor wrote that Bristol-Myers Squibb employs about 25,000 persons worldwide, with annual revenues greater than $15 billion. 

She wrote that McKesson is responsible for about a fourth of its revenue.  

“All of the plaintiffs, residents and nonresidents alike, allege that they were injured by the same essential facts,” she wrote. 

“Our cases require no connection more direct than that.” 

She wrote that the people of California had an interest in efficient regulation of resident and nonresident corporations. 

In a footnote, she wrote that the Court didn’t address whether a plaintiff in state court can represent a class of persons not injured in that state.    

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Bristol-Myers Squibb Madison County Circuit Court