In Knapp v. Zoetis Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. Lexis 63783 (E.D. Va. March 31, 2021), the plaintiff alleged that administration of an equine antibiotic caused his horse, Boomer, to experience “persistent lameness” and permanent damage to the “musculature in his neck.” Boomer was not okay. His condition was far from stable.
The plaintiff claimed that the manufacturer knew of similar negative reactions yet failed to supply proper warnings. The plaintiff’s complaint included causes of action for negligence, failure to warn, defective design and manufacture, and breaches of various express and implied warranties. The complaint did not specify under which law the negligence was brought, cited Virginia law for two of the warranty claims, and pointed to New Jersey for the rest of the causes of action. The claims under New Jersey law were styled as a class action.
Boomer and his owner lived in Virginia, while the defendant manufacturer was a citizen of New Jersey. (Quick: Name a famous equestrian from New Jersey.) The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the claims under New Jersey law. It also moved to strike the class action.
The federal court, sitting in Virginia, applied Virginia choice of law rules. Virginia applies the lex loci delicti – the law of the place of the wrong. In personal injury tort cases, the applicable law is typically where the plaintiff (or in this case, his four-legged companion) first became ill. Warranty claims can smell like both tort and contract claims, but either way, the state where the injury occurs supplies the operative substantive law. In Knapp, poor Boomer ingested the drug and suffered injuries in Virginia. In the race between Virginia law and New Jersey law, Virginia law is leading by several lengths as we round the last turn.
The plaintiff cited a New Jersey case that considered a claim by a plaintiff who alleged an injury in Virginia caused by a drug manufactured by a New Jersey company. But that was a horse of a different color. The New Jersey court held that New Jersey law governed the claim for punitive damages. That ruling was based on New Jersey’s “significant relationship” choice of law rule, which is different from Virginia law. Moreover, even that New Jersey case ended up applying Virginia law to the substantive claims arising from the injury in Virginia.
Again, everything of importance in the Knapp case happened in Virginia, so Virginia’s law applied, not the law of New Jersey, where the defendant had its principal place of business. Giddy up!
What is especially interesting about the Knapp case is that the plaintiff’s attempt to convert his individual dispute into a nationwide class action under a different state’s law failed, with the action cut back to an individual one under the law of the plaintiff’s state. Choice of law galloped straight into the issue of standing.
The plaintiff argued that a class action under New Jersey law would be the “best way to achieve an efficient manner of uniform redress.” Whoa! Efficiency was really a code word for ponying up big class action fees for plaintiff attorneys. That would be a lot of hay. But such specious efficiency cannot vault over fundamental rules of standing.
The Knapp court held that the plaintiff lacked standing to assert any action under New Jersey law because the use of the drug and the injury did not happen in New Jersey. The plaintiff did not allege an injury in fact occurring under New Jersey law. Consequently, the plaintiff lacked standing to bring a case on behalf of either himself or others under New Jersey law. The plaintiff’s lack of standing under New Jersey prompted the Knapp court to say Nay to the class action alleged under New Jersey law. As far as we are concerned, that is the main point of the Knapp case.
That is not to say that the state court rulings are devoid of interest. The Knapp court considered the negligence, implied warranty, and express warranty claims under Virginia law. The court concluded that the plaintiff might possibly be able to make out a claim for breach of an express warranty. But the negligence and implied warranty claims flunked because the complaint did not identify any specific defect in the drug at issue. All the complaint did was say there was a defect. The plaintiff contended that he did not need to identify a specific defect That was not a whinnying – sorry, winning – argument. The Eastern District of Virginia has already rejected the argument that a plaintiff need not identify a product’s defects at the pleading stage.
In the end, the plaintiff was left only with a single express warranty claim under the law of his residence, Virginia. From the plaintiff lawyer’s perspective, seeing a wide-scale class action cut down to such a small sliver must have seemed like a nightmare. At a minimum, the result must have produced a long face.
(Answer: Jessica Springsteen, daughter of The Boss. The location of Casa Springsteen supplies a clue: Colts Neck Township.)