(Recasts first paragraph, adds details from railroad case,
justice cellphone ringing, paragraphs 3, 7-8, 15-16, 18-19)
By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON, April 25 The U.S. Supreme Court on
Tuesday appeared poised to clamp down on where corporations can
be sued, a potential setback for plaintiffs' lawyers who strive
to bring cases in courts and locales they consider friendly.
The nine justices in two separate cases heard appeals of
lower court rulings allowing out-of-state injury lawsuits
against drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co and BNSF
Companies and plaintiffs are engaged in a fight over where
lawsuits seeking financial compensation for injuries should be
filed. Companies typically can be sued in a state where they are
headquartered or incorporated, as well as where they have
significant ties. They want to curtail plaintiffs' ability to
"shop" for courts in states with laws conducive to such
Bristol-Myers was appealing a California Supreme Court
ruling allowing that state's courts to hear claims related to
its blood-thinning medication Plavix even though most plaintiffs
do not live in the state and the company is not based there.
Based on questions asked during the argument, the court's
conservative majority appeared to side with the companies' view
while its liberals wondered how it would be unfair to add
out-of-state claims to a case that would proceed anyway.
Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism
over California handling matters for residents of all other
"That's a very patronizing view of federalism," Kennedy told
the plaintiffs' lawyer, Thomas Goldstein. "California will tell
Ohio, 'Oh, don't worry, Ohio, we'll take care of you.'"
If suits involving out-of-state residents can be handled in
every state, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts added, "I
don't see that it increases the efficiency at all."
'ALL OF THE ABOVE'
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan suggested Bristol-Myers did not
want to face multiple trials in California specifically because
of plaintiff-friendly juries or the possibility of punitive
"All of the above," the company's lawyer Neal Katyal said,
adding that it is harder to get cases thrown out of court before
trial in California.
The underlying lawsuits filed in 2012 against Bristol-Myers
and California-based drug distributor McKesson Corp involved 86
California residents and 575 non-Californians, alleging Plavix
increased their risk of stroke, heart attack and internal
The California Supreme Court ruled in August 2016 that it
could preside over the Plavix case because Bristol-Myers Squibb
conducted a national marketing campaign and sold nearly $1
billion of the drug in the state. Bristol-Myers is incorporated
in Delaware and headquartered in New York.
The justices also appeared to be leaning toward Texas-based
railroad BNSF. The company is appealing a 2015 Montana Supreme
Court ruling allowing out-of-state residents to sue there over
injuries occurring anywhere in BNSF's nationwide network.
The case focused on a federal law concerning railroads, but
Roberts seemed skeptical that a ruling siding with the
plaintiffs would be limited to that context.
Roberts wondered whether other companies operating in
multiple states including airlines and trucking companies could
similarly be sued in states where they operate but are not
"How do you decide what other companies and industries are
at home in Montana?" Roberts asked the plaintiffs' lawyer.
Rulings in both cases are due by the end of June.
In an unusual twist, Justice Stephen Breyer's cellphone rang
shortly after the Bristol-Myers argument began, which he
scrambled to turn off. Members of the public are forbidden from
bringing electronic devices into the court's chamber. A court
spokeswoman called Breyer's cellphone ringing an "oversight."
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Lawrence
Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)