Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its seminal personal jurisdiction ruling in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California.1 BMS held that state courts cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants as to plaintiffs whose claims arose out of state.
The ruling made clear that this fundamental rule applies even when, as was the case in BMS, the state court is presiding over nationwide mass tort actions involving substantially similar claims by in-state plaintiffs against the same out-of-state defendants. Although the decision has reined in plaintiffs lawyers' forum-shopping efforts to manufacture personal jurisdiction by joining the claims of resident plaintiffs with those of nonresidents in state court in mass tort proceedings, its applicability to class actions — which sometimes also seek to group the claims of in- and out-of-state plaintiffs against out-of-state defendants — was left an open question.2
In the two years since BMS was decided, a significant number of district courts have confronted that question. Every court of which we are aware has recognized that BMS applies to the named plaintiffs in putative class actions, but courts have split on whether the Supreme Court's landmark decision applies to unnamed class members. Dozens of district courts have passed on the matter, but the courts of appeals have not yet addressed the question. That should soon change, as the issue is presented in pending appeals in both the Seventh and D.C. Circuits.3
For the reasons explained in this article, these courts should follow the better-reasoned lower-court decisions that have held that BMS applies in full to class actions, including to the claims of unnamed class members, and, as a result, that nationwide classes cannot be maintained except where the defendant is subject to general personal jurisdiction (typically, the defendant's principal place of business or place of incorporation). Appellate consensus on this issue would provide important guidance for lower courts and litigants, establish greater predictability for defendants on where they might be called to face class litigation, and forestall the need for Supreme Court intervention.
The BMS Decision
In BMS, more than 600 plaintiffs, most of whom were not California residents, sued BMS in California state court, alleging that they had been injured by ingesting Plavix, a drug manufactured by BMS. BMS moved to dismiss the nonresidents' claims on the ground that the court lacked personal jurisdiction.
On appeal, the California Supreme Court concluded that the trial court did have specific personal jurisdiction over the claims in light of BMS's extensive contacts with California and the similarity between the claims of the California residents and those of the nonresidents. But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, explaining that the "mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested Plavix in California — and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the nonresidents — does not allow the [s]tate to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents' claims." In so doing, the court made clear that a state court necessarily lacks specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant with respect to claims asserted by plaintiffs whose claims have no connection to the forum where an action is commenced, regardless of whether those plaintiffs join their claims with plaintiffs whose claims have some connection with the forum.
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1 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017) ("BMS").
2 See id. at 1789 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).
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