In a favorable decision for retailers, a California federal court judge scaled back a proposed class action seeking to bring nationwide class claims. Plaintiff Todd Carpenter alleged that he bought a rodent habitat at a California PetSmart and that the habitat was defective in such a way that his rodents were able to chew through and escape. He filed a class action in the US District Court for the Southern District of California for violations of California consumer protection laws, violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, and common law fraud. The plaintiff sought to represent a nationwide class consisting of all purchasers of the rodent habitat along with a California subclass. PetSmart moved to strike the nationwide class on the grounds that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over PetSmart with respect to the nationwide class.
The court evaluated whether it could exercise specific jurisdiction over PetSmart, and it determined that it lacked specific personal jurisdiction for out-of-state class members. The fact that PetSmart sold the habitats in California “[did] not create a sufficient relationship between PetSmart and California such that it should be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in California for the claims of a nationwide class with no connection to California.” The court further ruled that even if it had personal jurisdiction over claims for purchases outside of California, plaintiff lacked standing to bring common law claims on behalf of out-of-state class members because he was trying to bring 50 versions of every common law claim (one for every state’s laws), but he did not have any standing to assert claims under any state’s laws aside from California.
In so holding, the court determined that the Supreme Court’s ruling in a mass tort action, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, applied in the nationwide class action context. In Bristol-Myers, the Court determined that the California court lacked specific jurisdiction over plaintiffs who were not residents of California, did not purchase the prescription medication at issue in California, and who were not harmed in California. The Court did not state whether its holding applied outside of the context of a mass tort action. The difference between a class action and a mass tort claim is that in mass torts, all plaintiffs are included in the lawsuit and must prove on an individual basis that they were harmed. In a class action, however, a single litigant can represent a group that is treated as a single person.
The Carpenter district court departed from other California district courts that have limited Bristol-Myers to the context of mass tort actions. Instead, the court took note of decisions from district courts in Illinois, Arizona, and New York that similarly held that Bristol-Myers extends to nationwide class actions. For example, the court mentions Chavez v. Church & Dwight Co., which was a consumer class action related to the labeling of a dietary supplement. Plaintiff, an Illinois resident, sought to represent himself along with nationwide and multistate classes. The district court for the Northern District of Illinois determined that it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant because in its view, Bristol-Myers’s holding was applicable to class actions. Similarly, the district court for the Northern District of New York held in Chizniak v. Certainteed Corp., et al., that only one of seven plaintiffs could bring class action claims for alleged defects in the siding of their home in the Northern District because only that one plaintiff lived in New York. In other words, it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state plaintiff’s claims.
The Carpenter decision is a helpful one for retailers, but they should take note that the Ninth Circuit has not made a determination regarding Bristol-Meyers’s applicability outside of the mass tort context, so the application of Bristol-Meyers still will vary from district to district.