Interestingly, it’s a case that is almost a year old that has us thinking about litigation tourism post Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017). We know that plaintiffs’ forum shopping gamesmanship isn’t over. It’s just gotten a lot more difficult now that the Supreme Court has said non-resident plaintiffs can’t go suing non-resident defendants anywhere they want. The most straight forward way for plaintiffs to stay out of federal court, assuming that is their goal, is to sue in defendant’s home state. Per the forum defendant rule, even where diversity exists, a defendant cannot remove a case to federal court if one of defendants (properly joined and served) is a citizen of the state in which the case was filed. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b). Stuck in state court, which isn’t always a bad thing, defendants then need to carefully consider forum non conveniens and choice of law issues.
Those were both key issues defendant decided to move on in Yocum v. Biogen, Inc., 2016 WL 10517110 (Mass. Super. Dec. 14, 2016). The case only recently popped up in our searches but with the likelihood of seeing more litigation filed in defendant’s backyards, we thought it worth a quick mention. Plaintiff brought a wrongful death suit in Massachusetts alleging that his wife died as a result of side effects from defendant’s drug used to treat her multiple sclerosis. Id. at *1. Plaintiff resides in and decedent received treatment and died in Wisconsin. Defendant’s principal place of business is in Massachusetts. Id. Just because defendant couldn’t remove the case to federal court, it still had some decisions to make. Such as, would it prefer the case to be litigated in Wisconsin. And, if it couldn’t move the case west, should Wisconsin law still apply. Yes and yes were the answers for this defendant.
First up was a motion to dismiss on the grounds of forum non conveniens. Defendant’s argument was that not only was Wisconsin an available alternative forum, but that both public and private interests favored litigating there as opposed to Massachusetts. Generally speaking, all things being equal, courts don’t disrupt a plaintiff’s choice of forum. So, where case-specific witnesses like treaters and prescribers are in plaintiff’s home state and company witnesses are in defendant’s home state – most courts see that as a wash. See id. at *3. One set of witnesses or another are either traveling or being put on video. That’s not to say that this is always equal. For instance, if significant depositions of company witnesses have already occurred and won’t need to be repeated, maybe that helps tip things toward the plaintiff’s home state. Or, if the relevant company witnesses have changed jobs, retired, or otherwise moved, the defendant home state connection becomes more attenuated. Likewise, depending on the issues, a large company’s principal place of business might not be where the key company witnesses are located. These are likely the types of things a defendant is going to have to address to move the scales on the private interests.
Turning from the private interests to the public interests, defendant raised two arguments – the court would need to apply Wisconsin law and Wisconsin has a significant interest in regulating tortious conduct alleged to have occurred within the state. Taking them in reverse, the court found that Massachusetts has an equally significant interest in regulating the conduct of a resident business. Id. Another push. Left then with only choice of law, that alone is not enough to warrant a forum nondismissal. Defendant’s motion was denied.
That brings us to choice of law. If defendant can’t get to Wisconsin, it wanted to bring Wisconsin to it. Here the court agreed with defendant. We don’t usually take a definitive position on choice of law issues because frankly, our choice is likely to change case to case. So, we’ll just say that defendant did a good job of explaining why Wisconsin has the more meaningful contacts with the issues and the parties and that it is not an unusual conclusion for a court to decide to apply the law of the place where the injury occurred. Id. at *4-6.
Then we get to the substantive issues. Applying Wisconsin law, the court dismissed plaintiff’s breach of warranty and punitive damages claims. Wisconsin does not recognize breach of warranty for products liability suits. Id. at *6. Nor does Wisconsin recognize claims for punitive damages in wrongful death actions. Id. Both categories of claims, however, were dismissed without prejudice. Plaintiff was given an opportunity to try to re-plead the breach of warranty allegations as cognizable Wisconsin claims. And, since Wisconsin does recognize punitive damages for survival actions, plaintiff was getting another shot at that one too.
Finally, defendant also sought dismissal of the failure to warn claims as preempted. Defendant argued that the risks of the drug were considered by the FDA at the time of approval and that there was no newly acquired information that would have allowed defendant to change its label under the CBE regulations. Id. at *7. Therefore, it was impossible for defendant to comply with both federal and state requirements. But, this case is still at the pleadings stage and the court found that plaintiff had alleged enough to survive preemption. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that there were factual developments post-approval regarding the risks that would not have been considered at the time the FDA reviewed the drug and its labeling. Id. Further, the court found that defendant had not presented “clear evidence” that the FDA would not have approved a labeling change. Id. at *8.
It is worth noting, however, that the court did say that if plaintiff was pursuing a fraud-on-the-FDA type claim (failure to disclose risks to the FDA), that claim was preempted. Id. at *8n.12. Given that the court’s preemption decision was based on a very sparse record, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a round 2 on this issue after some discovery.
If defendants are going to see more home state litigation, even if forum non conveniens is a bit of an uphill battle – establishing choice of law early on may have several benefits. Dismissing claims is certainly one of them, but knowing what law is going to apply on issues such as learned intermediary and causation before discovery gets underway can be invaluable.