The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 19, 2017 ruling in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California establishes that state courts may not exercise specific personal jurisdiction in product liability cases unless the corporate defendant took actions giving rise to the plaintiff’s particular claims within the state.  Coming just weeks after the BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell holding clarified the narrow bases for state courts properly to find general jurisdiction over corporate defendants, BMS further tightens the jurisdictional standards product liability plaintiffs must meet.

BMS considered whether non-resident plaintiffs could join a California “mass tort” lawsuit asserting injuries caused by use of the defendant’s prescription medication Plavix.  Although the plaintiff group included several California residents, most of the litigants did not live in California.  These non-residents had no California links to their claims: they did not receive or fill their Plavix prescriptions in California, did not incur their alleged injuries in California, and did not receive treatment in California.  Bristol-Myers Squibb has conducted significant business activities in California, but none related to the development or manufacture of Plavix.  The company did sell a considerable number of Plavix pills in California, as it did across the country and around the globe.  The California Supreme Court ruled that, between the company’s unrelated business conduct within the state, the sale of Plavix to a large number of Californians, and the similarity of the non-resident plaintiffs’ allegations to those asserted by resident claimants, California could exercise specific jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents the California courts from hearing the non-residents’ claims. Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the 8-1 majority.  As a preliminary matter, the Court noted that specific jurisdiction is “very different” and focuses on entirely distinct factual issues from what must be considered for general jurisdiction.  While general jurisdiction examines the extent of a corporation’s overall affiliations with the forum state, such as the place of incorporation and location of the company’s headquarters, corporate activities not linked to the particular plaintiff’s claims are not “even relevant” to the specific jurisdiction inquiries.  The fact that Bristol-Myers Squibb conducts pharmaceutical research in California and provided millions of Plavix doses to Californians carried no weight in assessing whether specific jurisdiction existed for the non-residents claims.  As the Court explained, “What is needed—and what is missing here—is a connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue.”  Because the plaintiff did not incur injury within the forum state and “all the conduct giving rise to the nonresidents’ claims occurred elsewhere,” the Court held, “California courts cannot claim specific jurisdiction.”  Notably, however, the Court observed that its ruling considered only the exercise of specific jurisdiction by state courts and did not reach the question of whether federal district courts face similar limitations.   

In the aftermath of the BMS ruling, the issue of jurisdiction warrants close consideration by corporations facing product liability lawsuits outside their home states.  If the company did not manufacture or sell in the forum state the individual product that the plaintiff claims to have caused injury, specific jurisdiction may be lacking.  Additionally, BMS draws into question the viability of state court proceedings that lump together multiple plaintiffs with similar claims, unless those plaintiffs all independently have a basis for claiming jurisdiction in the forum state.