Court Rulings/Decisions

For the past several months, Monsanto has been in court challenging California’s decision to add the chemical glyphosate—the active ingredient in its herbicide Roundup—to the Proposition 65 list. It recently faced a setback when the California Supreme Court rejected Monsanto’s request to stay a lower court’s decision to include glyphosate among the 960 chemicals on the list.  California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) wasted no time after the decision and added glyphosate to the list on July 7, 2017.
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On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California (BMS), an action brought in California state court that included some non-California plaintiffs alleging injuries not suffered in California. The Supreme Court – for the second time this term – narrowed where plaintiffs can constitutionally sue companies.

The decision already is impacting mass tort actions. On the same day as the BMS decision, a Missouri state court declared a mistrial in an action alleging that Johnson & Johnson’s talc products cause ovarian cancer.

BMS provides product liability defendants with an opportunity to argue that state courts do not have personal jurisdiction over them when the claims have no connection with the defendants’ activities in the forum state.
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On May 30, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell (BNSF), another case that defines the constitutional limits of general personal jurisdiction over companies.

The major issue in BNSF was whether a railroad company had a substantial enough presence in Montana for the Montana courts to assert general jurisdiction over the company. The Court’s decision also answered whether a federal law, the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), conferred personal jurisdiction to state courts over railroad companies wherever they are “doing business.”
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A Missouri federal court recently retained jurisdiction over state-law claims under the rarely used “Grable doctrine.” The doctrine arose from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, and supports removal when (1) a plaintiff’s state-law claim raises a disputed and substantial federal question, and (2) removal would not disturb the balance between state and federal judicial responsibilities.

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The highest courts in two states have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue companies in state courts of their choosing. The Oregon and Missouri Supreme Courts recently dismissed claims against companies for lack of jurisdiction where the companies were not incorporated or headquartered in the forum state, or were not sued because of their activity in the state.
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On January 9, 2017, the United States Supreme Court granted review over a case from the California Supreme Court that could affect whether plaintiffs can bring product liability and mass tort claims in states where they don’t live and didn’t suffer an injury.

In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, No. 16-466, the Court will decide whether the California courts properly asserted jurisdiction over Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMS). It will consider where companies that operate nationwide businesses can be sued, and how their activities in a state—including marketing or sales—could expose them to a lawsuit there.

If the Court decides that California courts have jurisdiction over BMS in this case, then companies could face more nonresident plaintiff lawsuits, particularly in California. For companies, these lawsuits could mean facing potentially plaintiff-friendly laws and courts and the inconvenience of defending a case in another part of the country.
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On June 28, 2016, the Court of Appeals decided the following question: Does a manufacturer have a duty to warn about asbestos-containing parts made by someone else but used with its non-asbestos product? The Court answered, “Sometimes,” under a relatively narrow set of circumstances.

The plaintiff in Dummitt v. Crane Co., a Navy boiler technician from 1960-1977, alleged that he developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos insulation used with Crane Co.’s high-temperature steam valves. Crane Co. didn’t make the insulation, and its valves did not contain any asbestos.
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Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 made to the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, in addition to a separate free-standing settlement offer in the same amount, does not render the lawsuit moot.

In Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, No. 14-857, 2016 WL 228345 (U.S. Jan. 20, 2016), Jose Gomez filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act as a result of unwanted text messages he and others received from Campbell-Ewald Company.  Before Gomez had filed his motion for class certification, Campbell made an offer of judgment to him under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 which would have satisfied his personal claim entirely.  Gomez allowed this offer to lapse after 14 days, as specified by the rule.  Campbell then moved to dismiss the case, claiming that no controversy remained after its offer provided Gomez with complete relief.  Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Campbell.
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On November 10, 2015, a Charleston, West Virginia jury returned a unanimous verdict for defendant Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., finding the company’s High Rise booster seat to be neither defective nor responsible for the death of a four-year-old child. Tragically, the child died from injuries sustained in a horrific, multiple-rollover accident that occurred on a