The realm of nationwide class action lawsuits was thrown in disarray when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017). In the months since this decision was announced, federal circuits have reached different conclusions as to whether a federal court has personal jurisdiction over a nonresident, unnamed class member in nationwide class action lawsuits.
In the Bristol-Myers Squibb case, plaintiffs filed a mass tort lawsuit in the State of California over alleged defects in a prescription drug manufactured by the company. The suit included over 600 plaintiffs, with over 87% of the total plaintiffs residing outside of the state. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ultimately dismissed all non-California residences because their claims had no factual connection to California.
As the sole dissent, Justice Sotomayor expressed concern that this decision would result in contraction of specific jurisdiction in other unintended contexts. Justice Sotomayor articulated that the Court’s decision does not address the question of whether its opinion would apply to a class action in which a plaintiff injured in the forum State seeks to represent a nationwide class of plaintiffs, not all of whom were injured there, leaving open the question of whether this decision does, in fact, apply to class actions.
In the fallout after the Bristol-Myers Squibb decision was announced, some federal districts have concluded that the court does not need personal jurisdiction over unnamed putative class members’ claims whereas others have required dismissal of claims asserted by non-resident class members. And some courts have deferred determination of jurisdiction over non-resident putative class members until after class certification has been determined—the rationale being that until certification, putative class members are treated as nonparties anyway.
Absent further guidance from the Supreme Court, which may in fact come as there are a number of pending appeals which could focus this issue for the Court, parties will be left navigating which circuit will best advance their position.