English Plaintiffs’ Long-Distance Suit Moved Closer to Home

Usually, it’s the plaintiff who seeks to sue in his home state, while the defendant seeks to have lawsuits heard in its own home state.

But New Jersey law is so biased against corporate defendants that New Jersey-based drug-maker Merck & Co. sought to keep English lawsuits against it out of the New Jersey courts and in English courts instead.

By contrast, English plaintiffs sought to sue Merck not in their own country’s courts, as plaintiffs typically do, but rather wanted to sue it all the way across the ocean in New Jersey, several thousand miles away from their own homes.

A New Jersey appeals court has just ruled that the suits belong in England. The court’s decision is correct and would be unremarkable in any other state, since the suits do, in fact, belong in England, because that’s where most of the relevant evidence is. (The English plaintiffs are suing it over marketing that occurred in the United Kingdom, so that’s where the relevant documents are).

But New Jersey is famously hostile to corporate defendants, so the English plaintiffs hoped that New Jersey’s famously activist courts would stretch jurisdictional rules to allow them to sue in New Jersey over wrongdoing alleged to have occurred in England, so that they could benefit from New Jersey law provisions giving plaintiffs treble damages and uncapped punitive damages.

The English plaintiffs attacked their own country’s legal system, claiming that because England has a “loser-pays” rule making unsuccessful plaintiffs pay the defendant’s lawyers’ fees in most cases, England was therefore an inadequate forum for them to sue Merck. (Never mind that other drug makers have been repeatedly sued, sometimes successfully, in England.)

But not even the New Jersey appeals court bought this argument, which would give English plaintiffs a blanket excuse to sue in America rather than England.