WV Supreme Court affirms dismissal of non-resident Zoloft cases

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, its single appellate court, has upheld the dismissal of 20 Zoloft lawsuits by the 24th Judicial Circuit Court for Wayne County. The opinion of the WV Supreme Court of Appeals was delivered by Justice Allen Loughry on April 10, 2015. “The petitioners seek a writ of prohibition to prevent the Mass Litigation Panel from enforcing its order entered on October 21, 2014, dismissing them on the basis of forum non conveniens from the underlying personal injury litigation, which involves products liability and negligence claims,” he stated. “Following a careful review of the briefs, the arguments of counsel, the record submitted and the applicable law, we deny the requested writ.”

The lawsuits, filed in 2012 and 2013, have been long embroiled in procedural motions back and forth between the parties.

Originally, lawsuits against Pfizer, the manufacturer of the popular SSRI antidepressant Zoloft, were filed by 19 families in July of 2012. The suits claimed several birth defects were caused by the mothers’ ingestion of Zoloft while pregnant. In August of 2012, Pfizer removed 18 of the cases to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia (federal court). Plaintiffs then moved to remand the cases back to the Wayne County Circuit Court (state court). The motion was granted and Pfizer appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled that it didn’t have the authority to review the remand order.

Pfizer then filed a motion requesting that the Wayne Circuit Court refer the pending cases to WV’s Mass Litigation Panel. The Mass Litigation Panel was established by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to efficiently manage and resolve mass litigation. In September of 2013, Pfizer’s motion was denied.

Then, in October of 2013, six new plaintiffs filed similar a similar Zoloft case against Pfizer in the Wayne County Circuit Court. Five of the six new plaintiffs were not WV residents. Plaintiffs filed a Motion to refer the cases to the Mass Litigation Panel. Pfizer again filed a motion to remove the original 19 families to federal court.

In January of 2014, the two cases were transferred to the Mass Litigation Panel.

In March of 2014, the Panel ruled that the cases were not two separate cases, but instead properly were 25 separate cases and divided them accordingly. Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals to prevent the enforcement of the Panel’s order. In May of 2014, the Supreme Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion.

In accordance with the deadline set by the case management order, Pfizer filed motions to dismiss the cases of all 21 of the non-resident plaintiffs on the basis of forum non-conveniens. The Panel granted Pfizer’s motion and dismissed 20 of the cases in October 2014. Plaintiffs’ appealed to prevent the dismissals.

The Supreme Court of Appeals found no error in the panel’s decision to dismiss the non-resident families stating, “West Virginia has no real interest in trying non-resident plaintiffs’ claims against non-resident defendants involving causes of action that accrued in states other than West Virginia.”

In her dissent, Judge Davis opined that a Motion to Dismiss two years after a case has been filed was not timely and should have been denied. She states, “The factors relied upon by the defendants to support their motion were obvious from the time the complaints were filed.”

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