Totally Class-Less?: Examining Bristol-Myer’s Applicability to Class Actions

By Justin A. Stone

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court tightened the specific jurisdiction
doctrine when it dismissed several plaintiffs’ claims in a mass tort action
against pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) for lack of
personal jurisdiction. The action was brought in a California state court and
involved several hundred plaintiffs alleging that they were injured by Plavix,
a drug BMS manufactures. The Supreme Court held that California could
not constitutionally exercise personal jurisdiction over BMS as to the
nonresident plaintiffs, who did not have an independent connection to
California. While the nonresident plaintiffs argued that California had
specific jurisdiction because their claims were identical to the California
residents’ claims (with the only difference being that their experience with
Plavix occurred in other states), the Court held that these claims did not arise
out of BMS’s contacts with California, but rather out of BMS’s contacts with
the particular states in which these plaintiffs were injured. In so holding, the
Court emphasized that enabling California to exercise jurisdiction in this
context would infringe on the sovereignty of other states—more specifically,
the states who housed the nonresident plaintiffs involved in the action. This
Note explores whether class actions should be bound by this decision. The
fundamental question, then, is whether class actions are meaningfully
distinguishable from mass tort actions such that they avoid Bristol-Myers’s
reach.