WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to take up
the arguments put forth in the appealed Bristol-Myers Squibb v.
Superior Court, a case that involves establishing the limits of
personal jurisdiction over nonresident parties cited in a mass
According to Scott Dodson, a professor of law at UC Hastings
College of the Law, there are two types of personal jurisdiction:
general and specific.
“General jurisdiction allows a court to assert jurisdiction over
the defendant for any cause of action no matter where that cause of
action arises," Dodson told the Northern California Record.
“As a result, general jurisdiction is fairly limited. Wherever a defendant can be fairly said to reside is where the
applicable court can assert general jurisdiction."
Specific personal jurisdiction is a slightly different animal and is asserted by the court when a defendant
evidences purposeful contact related to the cause of the action in
question with the forum state.
The Bristol-Myers Squibb case is particularly interesting because
it raises the question of whether a plaintiff’s suit is justified
when it involves a defendant deliberately seeking to conduct a
significant part of its operations within the petitioning state (or
forum state), even if there is no causal association between the
defendant’s forum contacts and the plaintiff’s allegations.
The origins of the case stem from March 2012, when more than 600
individual plaintiffs filed eight separate complaints against the
pharmaceutical giant. The suits assert that the anti-coagulant drug
Plavix resulted in 18 deaths and a series of injuries. Bristol-Meyers
was incorporated in Delaware, but its main office is in New York and
many of its research facilities are in New Jersey.
Eventually, lawyers for the plaintiffs wrapped together all eight
cases in a class-action suit that ended up in the Superior Court in
California, which had 86 of the 678 plaintiffs. The court ruled in
September that both in- and out-of-state residents could sue the
company in California court. That decision was appealed by the
David Levine, also a professor of law at UC Hastings, told the
Record that “prior to 1945, the question (of personal
jurisdiction) was framed as whether the corporation was ‘present’
in the forum (state) due to its activities.”
Levine said that over time, with cases like Helicopters v. Hall
(1984), the Supreme Court began to assess whether a corporation in
one state was amenable to general personal jurisdiction in another
state if significant contact with that state existed.
The pliability of general personal jurisdiction was also addressed
by cases like World World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson (1980)
and Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown (2011),
Levine said. In those cases, the companies in question were doing a
pervasive national business and did not vigorously question their
amenability to general personal jurisdiction until another Supreme
Court case began to reverse the pendulum’s swing.
In 2014, the Supreme Court began to scale back the broadening
definition of general jurisdiction. In Daimler AG v. Bauman,
the court once again set the requirements for general jurisdiction to
its pre-1945 status.
Dodson explained to the Northern California Record that
despite appearances, the lower court in the Bristol-Myers case did
not ignore Daimler.
“Everyone on the California high court agreed that under
Daimler … which has recently and significantly tightened the
law regarding general personal jurisdiction, the trial court could
not assert general personal jurisdiction over the claims of
nonresidents,” he said.
Dodson said the court found that “specific personal jurisdiction
was OK in this circumstance because the claims by nonresidents
against Bristol Myers were sufficiently related to the claims of
residents to permit jurisdiction.”
Where the majority party and the dissenters of the California
court parted company was over the issue of relatedness. According to
Dodson, the dissenting judges found Bristol-Myers’ forum activities
not substantially related to the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims.
Bristol-Myers asserted that California courts lacked jurisdiction
because none of the deaths or injuries occurred in California, and
there were no factual allegations of any significant activity having
occurred in the state, thus providing no relatedness.
The California Superior Court responded that while the defendant
did not meet the requirements of general jurisdiction within
California, it was subject to specific personal jurisdiction since
Bristol-Myers carried out a large part of its research operations in
the state, sold the product through a California distributor, assumed
the risk of a suit when it engaged in a nationwide marketing campaign
and faced similar claims filed by California residents.
Bristol-Myers appealed, leading the case to the Supreme Court.
Laura Hortas, vice president and head of Corporate and Employee
Communications at Bristol-Myers Squibb, told the Northern
California Record that the company was “pleased with the
Supreme Court’s decision to hear this case and look(ed) forward to
the opportunity to present this matter.”
Levine told the Record that “presumably the Supreme
Court took the case to clarify the question of whether a court can
assert specific personal jurisdiction over claims that are related to
the forum, but the claims do not arise from those contacts.
"This is a position Justice Brennan advocated in several opinions,
but there never was a majority opinion adopting (or rejecting) his
position,” he said. “A pro-business Roberts court, especially
with the addition of Judge Gorsuch, may well hold that Bristol-Myers
does not have to defend the nonresidents' claims in California.”
Dodson appeared to agree.
“Given the skepticism that many members of the Supreme Court
have on broad expansion of personal jurisdiction, it seems unlikely
that the Supreme Court will affirm wholesale” California’s
opinion and reasoning, Dodson said.