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Which court decides class action products liability cases?

When a defective product is marketed and sold, the damage can be immediate or it might take years to uncover. These cases may relate to a defectively designed dresser that tips over and kills a child or a medical device or drug that causes harm (for example, transvaginal mesh or Plavix).

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California looks at the question of which court should hear these claims, especially when there are many people affected. This case continues a trend to limit state-court jurisdiction.

Class action with people harmed in 33 states

The case consolidated the claims of people who had suffered injuries related to taking the drug Plavix. Of those affected, 86 were California residents. The case was brought in California court.

The nonresident claims were included because the company had advertised and marketed Plavix nationwide. There was no dispute that those injured in the state could sue in California courts, so the issue became could those who lived in other states also be included?

The California Supreme Court found that the company had “substantial contacts with California” and California courts could decide the nonresident claims. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed even going as far as to say that the reasoning of the California court “is difficult to square with our precedents.” Justice Samuel Alito writing for a 8 justice majority wrote the approach “resembled a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.”

A lone dissent

There was a dissenter. Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed concerns that this decision will make it harder for the injured to hold a “corporation fully accountable for their nationwide conduct.” She explained her concerns further by stating that the holding, “hands one more tool to corporate defendants determined to prevent the aggregation of individual claims….” The majority dismissed these concerns by arguing that Texas residents or Ohio residents could band together and sue in their respective states. But how could this affect the rights of those who live in states with fewer residents (Alaska, Wyoming of Vermont)?

If injured by a defective product, an initial question is which court has proper jurisdiction to hear and decide the case. When a New Yorker is injured by a defective product designed and manufactured in New York, it’s not going to be a difficult analysis. But in our ever more interconnected world these situations are fewer and fewer.

These claims have always been complicated. Going up against a national or multi-national company is daunting – a David and Goliath-type battle. An experienced products liability attorney can level the playing field and obtain a fair remedy on your behalf.

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