Supreme Court Declines to Clarify Tolling Effect of Mass Tort Class Actions

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Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to take a case raising the tricky issues of cross-jurisdictional class action tolling. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. v. Stevens, No. 10-1196 (U.S., certiorari denied 5/31/11).

The question presented in the cert petition was whether was whether tolling the statute of limitations for individual claimants based on the pendency of a mass personal injury class action violates fundamental federal due process protections where the class action provides no notice to a defendant of the identity of unnamed class members, thus absolutely precluding the timely preservation of evidence and testimony critical to presenting an effective defense.

Defendant/petitioner has been involved for several years in litigation claiming that the drug Zometa is linked to osteonecrosis of the jaw or “ONJ.” Plaintiff below obtained a jury verdict on such a claim, affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court . 358 Mont. 474, 247 P.3d 244 (2010). The sole aspect of the Montana Supreme Court’s opinion at issue here was its ruling that the pendency of a never-certified federal class action on ONJ acts to resurrect respondent’s otherwise time-barred personal injury claims. The Montana Supreme Court determined as a matter of first impression in Montana that federal class action tolling should apply to render timely respondent’s complaint against petitioner. The Montana court noted that the concept of federal class action tolling was articulated by the Supreme Court in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974). In American Pipe, the Court held that in some contexts, the commencement of the class action suit satisfied the purpose of the limitation provision as to all those who might subsequently participate in the suit as well as for the named plaintiffs. One reason was concerns of judicial economy, as a contrary holding might invite a multiplicity of activity that the federal rules of procedure were designed to avoid, as individual plaintiffs would be forced to file preventative motions to join or intervene as parties if the class action status was still pending at the expiration of the statute of limitations.

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