Supreme Court of United States Reaffirms Limits of Specific Jurisdiction

Richard Wolf

The Supreme Court of the United States recently reaffirmed the principle that there must be a direct connection between a forum state and the underlying controversy in order for a court to exercise specific jurisdiction over the claims. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Ct. of Calif., No. 16-466 (U.S. June 19, 2017).

Bristol-Myers Squibb (“BMS”) is incorporated in Delaware and maintains headquarters in New York. It conducts business in California, including the sale of a blood-thinning drug called Plavix. A group of plaintiffs, consisting of residents and nonresidents of California, sued BMS, alleging that Plavix had damaged their health. The nonresident plaintiffs did not allege that they obtained Plavix through California doctors, nor did they claim that their injuries or treatment had any relation to California. BMS challenged the trial court’s finding that it had personal jurisdiction over BMS with respect to the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims. The California Supreme Court affirmed, finding that while the court lacked general jurisdiction, it had specific jurisdiction over the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims. Id. at 3. It found that BMS’s “extensive contacts” with California permitted the exercise of specific jurisdiction “based on a less direct connection between BMS’s forum activities and plaintiffs’ claims than might otherwise be required.” Id. This “less direct connection” was satisfied because the claims of the nonresident plaintiffs were similar to the claims of the California plaintiffs. Id.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed. Under the Court’s precedent, a lawsuit “must arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts with the forum” in order for the trial court to exercise specific jurisdiction. Id. at 5 (citing Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. ___ (2014), slip op. at 8). There needs to be “an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, an activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State…” Id. at 5-6 (citing Goodyear Dunlop Tires Ops., S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011)). A defendant’s general connections with the forum state, such as regularly occurring sales of a product, are not enough for specific jurisdiction. Id. at 7. Instead, the connection must be specific to the claims of the plaintiff.

In this case, the nonresident plaintiffs were not prescribed Plavix in California, did not purchase or ingest the drug in California, and were not injured by it in California. “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 State to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.” Id. at 8. It was not relevant that BMS conducted research in California on matters unrelated to Plavix. Id. Finally, the fact that BMS contracted with a California company, McKesson, to distribute Plavix nationally did not provide a basis for the exercise of specific jurisdiction. Id. at 11. BMS was not derivatively liable for McKesson’s conduct and did not engage in relevant acts together with McKesson.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor expressed her belief that since the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims against BMS concerned “conduct materially identical to acts the company took in California,” i.e. the marketing and distribution of Plavix, their claims “related to” BMS’s conduct in the forum state. She would have found specific jurisdiction.

New Jersey companies, specifically those who engage in business throughout the country, should take solace in this case. They cannot be sued in a foreign state under a theory of specific jurisdiction unless there is a direct relation between the company’s activities in the forum state and the plaintiffs’ allegations. The Supreme Court’s decision will also likely lead to increased filings in New Jersey, which is home to some of the largest pharmaceutical and consumer products companies in the country.