A Supreme Court pharma case deals consumers a big loss

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In the war being waged by large corporations against individual rights — and, yes, it is a war — a potentially decisive battle was recently fought. It will come as little surprise to any informed observer of American society that it was not the little guy who won.

The U.S. Supreme Court case of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. vs. Superior Court of California, which was decided in favor of BMS in June, may seem like an arcane question of legal jurisdiction. It’s anything but.

The case centered on a drug called Plavix that BMS developed. Plavix, also known by its generic name, clopidogrel, is an anti-platelet used to prevent blood from clotting inside blood vessels. Ever since the drug was approved by the FDA in 1997, thousands of people have claimed that it caused them gastrointestinal bleeding, severe bleeding from relatively minor cuts, and even brain damage.

Even though the company had significant business activities in California, as well as sales of Plavix and other drugs, a contract with a California distributor to distribute Plavix nationally, and employed hundreds of people in the state, BMS argued that California state courts could not exercise “personal jurisdiction” over the company for claims brought on behalf of people who lived, used Plavix, and were allegedly injured by the drug outside of California.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of BMS is a staggering blow for millions of Americans harmed each year by the reckless and abusive behavior of pharmaceutical companies. The decision raises an almost insurmountably high 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 headquartered or incorporated — the Supreme Court has placed an almost impossible burden on state court litigants. They will now be forced to sue in far-off courts, convince experts to travel out of state to testify, and shuttle between their home states and wherever the drug company is at home. Their alternative will be pursing claims in federal court — but still also likely in a different state — where they will be subject to different laws, rules, and standards to prove their claims.

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