Recently large corporations have been fighting against individual rights, and we are not surprised that it was not the individuals who won. In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. vs. Supreme Court of California, the court ruled in favor of BMS in June.
The case was about a drug called Plavix that BMS developed. Plavix is an anti-platelet developed to prevent blood from clotting inside blood vessels. Thousands of people claimed that it caused them gastrointestinal bleeding, severe bleeding from relatively minor cuts and some even claimed brain damage.
A group of people consisting of 86 Californians and 592 residents from 33 other states, who had been harmed by the drug, sued BMS in state court in California. BMS challenged the case not because the claims leveled against it but it would not be fair to BMS for the state court in California to hear the cases against the company as the nonresidents did not consume the drug in California and the drug was not made, manufactured, or marketed to them in the state.
Although the company administered substantial business activities in California, including sales of Plavix and a variety of other drugs, a contract with a California distributor to distribute Plavix across the nation, and employed hundreds of people in the state, BMS debated that California state courts could not exercise “personal jurisdiction” over the company claims brought on by the people who lived, used Plavix, and were supposedly harmed by the drug outside the state of California.
The court’s decision shocked millions of Americans harmed every year by pharmaceutical companies. It raised an almost insurmountable hurdle between victims and their hopes for obtaining justice in state courts throughout the country.
By foreclosing to plaintiffs’ state court venues other than those where these companies are “at home” — generally meaning where they are based out of— the Supreme Court has almost placed an impossible obstacle on state court litigants. They will now be forced to sue in courts remote, convince experts to travel out of state to testify, and transport between their home states and wherever the drug company is at home. The other way is to go after claims in federal court — but still also likely in a different state — where they will be exposed to different laws, rules, and standards to prove their claims.
Besides the damage this does to the rights of people seeking compensation for wrongs they’ve suffered, the reigning does not match with the contemporary, internet-based, boundless economy where business is conducted lithely and flawlessly across states, and even across countries. And it makes new problems: What happens in cases involving multiple lawbreakers based in two or more states? Is there one court in which one victim can sue multiple accountable corporations, or will he or she have to bring multiple lawsuits in multiple locations?
You might be eager to think this is someone else’s problem — that it’s a legal quiddity or a fluke of our system.
But there is a bigger picture being formed. It’s a picture of a country where individuals involuntarily give up valuable privileges to extensive incorporated entities. It’s a picture of a country where enormous organizational transformation is occurring; a country where states’ privileges are being taken away by big businesses and the federal government. It’s not a good-looking picture, but it’s one we must all accept.
The court system has usually been the last base of hope for people; the place where David can take on Goliath. It’s the place where they’re given a fair hearing, free from the stain of special interests and the effect of the authorities that be. But Americans are losing that. We must stand up against this destructive trend and ask that people — real people — count more than, or at least as much as, the dead numbers filling America’s corporate accounting books.