The National Association of Manufacturers and several other organizations and businesses filed an amicus brief on Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court urging review of a decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court that would undermine efforts to prevent West Virginia from being a magnet for asbestos and other mass tort cases.
The West Virginia Supreme Court has decided to strike down a law enacted by the state legislature that would prevent non-resident plaintiffs from suing in state courts unless “all or a substantial part of the acts or omissions giving rise to the claim asserted occurred in this state.” The law would also allow non-residents to sue in West Virginia if they are unable to obtain jurisdiction in another state where the action occurred.
The West Virginia Supreme Court determined that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires the suit to proceed in that state as long as one of the defendants is a citizen or resident there.
In the case in question, Jefferds Corp. v. Morris, a Virginia resident who was injured in Virginia while operating a forklift sued Crown Equipment, an Ohio corporation that designed and manufactured the forklift, and the West Virginia company that distributed and serviced the forklift.
The trial court dismissed the case on the grounds that no substantial part of the acts at issue occurred in West Virginia.
The NAM’s brief argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should decide whether West Virginia’s statute is a proper way to prevent forum shopping. Previous Supreme Court decisions have allowed states to give preference in providing access to the courts to residents over non-residents, to prevent overcrowding and financial strains on the court.
According to the brief, the West Virginia decision “will cast a shadow over similar existing statutes in other states and have a chilling effect on still other states seeking to protect their court systems from inundation by mass filings having no connection to the forum. Mass tort litigation can flow in torrents from one state to another, and it is vital to reaffirm the authority of the states in our Federal system to regulate this flow in a reasonable way – as West Virginia has done here.”
The statute at issue has been effective in curbing litigation by out-of-state plaintiffs, the NAM said. “The number of cases filed in West Virginia state courts dropped dramatically after enactment of that provision. In the years 2001 and 2002, an average of 1,850 ‘mass litigation’ civil cases were filed in West Virginia state courts. By 2005, the number had dropped to 57.”
“Nothing in the state law prevents a plaintiff from having his day in court,” said Quentin Riegel, NAM’s vice president for litigation. “All we are asking is that cases normally be tried where they should be – in the state where the plaintiff lives and the accident occurred. Plaintiffs should not try to shoehorn their lawsuits into states that have looser standards.”