Product News and Recalls

Plaintiffs Brace in Wake of Supreme Court Liability Decision

Supreme Court issues liability decisionA Supreme Court decision handed down last month and previously addressed on this blog may have huge implications not only for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, but for product liability laws across most manufacturers’ product lines as well.

If you recall, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly ruled in favor of Bristol-Myers Squibb by 8-1 in June. At question was whether plaintiffs from states other than California could join in a lawsuit filed against the corporation in California. BMS is based in New York. Plavix, the drug in question in the case, is not manufactured in California.

In its ruling authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court said that the “mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested Plavix in California – and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the non-residents – does not allow the State to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.”

The ruling has major implications for consumer law and has already been the basis for a mistrial in a Johnson & Johnson talc case. Talc lawsuits may just be the beginning however, as the ruling strikes at the very heart of lawsuit consolidation at the state level.

Consolidation allows for individual lawsuits filed for individuals across multiple states or counties that share similar circumstances (as is frequently the case in a product liability lawsuit) to be filed in a single jurisdiction. The court’s rulings and orders can be applied to all of the similar cases thereby simplifying the handling of a potentially large number of cases with efficiency.

Consolidation has been used extensively in product liability law and is generally seen as advantageous to both parties, as well as the court. It makes the system more efficient, saves money for both sides, and gives more people access to the courts by not having to deal with each case on an individual basis. And, when some consolidations can involve thousands of plaintiffs, one can see how powerful a vehicle like consolidation can be.

Under this ruling, however, everyone from tobacco companies to automobile manufacturers are now working under a completely different set of rules when it comes to the way in which the consuming public can try to hold them accountable. And, as a recent post on the news blog Politico points out, this extends beyond product liability and may even stray into the realm of environmental or financial liability as well.

The sole dissenting opinion in the case was authored by Justice Sonya Sotomayor. Justice Sotomayor appears to have been the only judge on the Court to recognize the chilling effect that such a ruling could have for plaintiffs across the country, as well as Americans’ access to their court systems. In her dissent, she wrote that the “effect of today’s opinion will be to curtail – and in some cases eliminate – plaintiff’s ability to hold corporations fully accountable for their nationwide conduct.” She goes on to say that in the future “it is difficult to imagine where it might be possible to bring a nationwide mass action against two or more defendants headquartered and incorporated in different states.”

Unfortunately for Justice Sotomayor, as well as the rest of the American consumer base, the highest Court in the land has spoken and appears to have come down on the side of corporate interests – for now at least.