- Written by: Jaime Weida
- Edited by: Dean Deborah Challener
Forty-one years ago, in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980), the United States Supreme Court found that an automobile manufacturer retailer and regional distributor were not subject to personal jurisdiction in a state where the accident occurred, solely because the owner of the vehicle drove the vehicle in that state. Importantly, the Court stated: “[I]f the sale of a product of a manufacturer or distributor such as Audi or Volkswagen is not simply an isolated occurrence, but arises from the efforts of the manufacturer or distributor to serve, directly or indirectly, the market for its product in other States, it is not unreasonable to subject it to suit in one of those States if its allegedly defective merchandise has there been the source of injury to its owner or to others.” With the narrowing of general and specific jurisdiction over the years, is this still the case? The Supreme Court recently answered this question in March of 2021 in Ford v. Montana.
Personal Jurisdiction Background
In Int’l Shoe Co. v. State of Wash., Off. of Unemployment Comp. & Placement, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), the Court established two categories of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. General jurisdiction is established when the defendant is “at home” in the forum. If the defendant is “at home,” it would not be very burdensome to litigate a case there. The plaintiff’s claim does not have to be connected to the forum. (Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 137 (2014)). Specific jurisdiction is found when a defendant has “certain minimum contacts with the forum such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”
Specific jurisdiction breaks down into three elements: (1) the defendant must have minimum contacts within the forum; (2) the claim must arise out of or relate to those contacts; and (3) the exercise of personal jurisdiction must be reasonable. (Asahi Metal Indus. Co. v. Super. Ct. of Cal., Solano Cty., 480 U.S. 102 (1987)). The Ford case turns on the second element: whether the plaintiff’s claim arose out of or related to the defendant’s contacts in the forum.
Prior to the Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. v. Super. Ct. of Cal., San Francisco Cty., 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017) opinion, some courts used a “sliding-scale” approach to evaluate the second element. Under the “sliding-scale” approach, if a defendant had extensive contacts within the forum, the plaintiff would only need to show a “loose relationship” between the defendant’s contacts and the plaintiff’s claim. In the present day, the Court commonly uses two other approaches: (1) the but-for test; and (2) the substantive-relevance test (the evidence test). (Linda Sandstrom Simard, Meeting Expectations: Two Profiles for Specific Jurisdiction, 38 Ind. L. Rev. 343 (2005)).
Summary of Ford v. Montana
In the first suit, a Montana resident, Markkaya Gullett, was killed after a 1996 Ford Explorer malfunctioned. In the second suit, Adam Bandemar claimed that after he was in a collision in Minnesota, he was injured as a result of a defect in a Crown Victoria, manufactured by Ford. Arguing a lack of personal jurisdiction, Ford moved to dismiss both of the lawsuits. Ford argued that the only way to find that personal jurisdiction existed was to find a causal link between Ford’s activities in the State and the sale of the vehicles to the two plaintiffs. Ford argued that because the vehicles were not designed, manufactured, or sold in the State where the accident occurred (Montana and Minnesota), that it could not be subject to personal jurisdiction in either state. Both Montana and Minnesota’s supreme courts rejected Ford’s argument, holding that Ford’s activities within each State were sufficient to support a finding of personal jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the personal jurisdiction issue. To answer this question, the Court relied on three famous personal jurisdiction cases: World-Wide Volkswagen, Walden, and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. (Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 592 U.S. ___ (2021)).
The Robinson family purchased an automobile in New York. The family later decided to relocate and move to Arizona. During the trip to Arizona, as the family was passing through Oklahoma, they were involved in a collision. Their vehicle was struck in the rear, which caused a fire, leaving Kay Robinson and her two children severely burned. The Robinson family brought a products liability suit in an Oklahoma court. The Robinsons sued the manufacturer, the regional distributer, and the New York retail dealer of the automobile. The regional distributor and the New York retail dealer challenged the exercise of personal jurisdiction. This case was about the first element of specific jurisdiction, specifically, purposeful availment. In order to establish contacts for the purposes of exercising specific jurisdiction, the Hanson v. Denckla Court stated that the defendant must have “purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State.” There was no evidence that the defendants solicited business in, closed sales in, performed services in, or advertised within the State of Oklahoma. Further, the Court stated that although it was foreseeable that the car might have been driven into Oklahoma, “the mere ‘unilateral activity’ of the plaintiff driving the vehicle into Oklahoma was not enough to satisfy the requirement of contact within the forum State.” (World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980)).
Walden v. Fiore
Ford argued that the Walden decision should also lead the Court to find that the exercise of personal jurisdiction in Montana and Minnesota was improper. The Walden case is about purposeful availment. In Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. 277 (2014), a police officer, working at an Atlanta airport, seized money from two residents of Nevada before they flew home. The two residents filed suit in Nevada and argued that the injury occurred within the State of Nevada, and therefore personal jurisdiction should have been proper. The Court disagreed with the plaintiffs and held that although the plaintiffs “felt the effects” of the officer’s conduct in Nevada, there was no evidence that the defendant purposefully and intentionally “reached out beyond” his home, Atlanta, Georgia. The defendant did not have contacts in Nevada, and therefore, personal jurisdiction was improper in Nevada.
After being injured as a result of ingesting a drug, Plavix, manufactured by Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co., a group of plaintiffs (from various states, including California) filed suit in a California court. At that time, California courts were known to be “plaintiff-friendly.” Personal jurisdiction was challenged by the defendant, Bristol-Meyers Squibb. The Court actually found that Bristol-Meyers Squibb did purposefully avail itself in the state of California. However, there was no connection between Bristol-Meyers Squibb’s activity in California and the out-of-state plaintiff’s claims. The claims did not arise from the defendant’s contacts with California because the out-of-state plaintiffs did not take the drug or purchase the drug in California. Personal jurisdiction was improper for the out-of-state plaintiffs who were not from California and were not injured in California, as the forum had no interest in litigating these claims. Notably, the Court stated that there was no “sliding scale” approach to the second element. The “sliding-scale” approach suggests that, the greater the defendant’s contacts with the forum, the less of a relationship is needed between the claim and the contacts. (Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. v. Super. Ct. of Cal., San Francisco Cty., 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017)).
Ford conceded that it had contacts within Montana and Minnesota. The plaintiffs in Ford brought their vehicles to the forum, just like the Robinsons did in World-Wide Volkswagen. The difference in the Ford case is that Ford had substantial contacts within the forum. The Court in the Walden case also found that there were no contacts in the forum which would justify the exercise of personal jurisdiction. Ford’s attempt to use the Walden case failed, because according to the Court, Ford had a “veritable truckload” of contacts within the States of Montana and Minnesota. (Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 592 U.S. ___ (2021)).
The Court stated that Ford’s use of Bristol-Meyers Squibb to support its argument was contradictory and actually affirmed the reason the Court held in favor of the plaintiffs. Unlike Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Co., Ford’s activities within Montana and Minnesota and the plaintiff’s claims of injury established a significant connection to justify the exercise of personal jurisdiction. The plaintiffs in Ford were from the forum and were injured in the forum, while the plaintiffs in Bristol-Meyers Squibb were not. The Ford Court held that the amount of dealerships Ford owned within the two states was evidence of a strong “relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.” The Court concluded that although the plaintiff’s claims did not arise out of Ford’s contacts with the forum (in other words, there was no but-for causation), they did relate to the defendant’s contacts in the forum. Thus, the Court tells us that “arise out of” and “relate to” mean two different things.
Does this mean the greater the defendant’s contacts with the forum, the more likely it is that a claim will “relate to” those contacts (at least when the plaintiff lives in the forum where the injury occurred)? So, is the “sliding-scale,” which was rejected in Bristol-Meyers Squibb, making a comeback?
Is It Reasonable?
The Court determined that the case arose out of Ford’s contacts with the states and that the claim was related to Ford’s activity within the two states. However, in regard to the third element of personal jurisdiction, the Court did not apply the reasonableness factors (which were first articulated in World-Wide Volkswagen and later applied in Asahi). Instead, the Court stated that Ford was treated “fairly” because it got the benefits and protections of the forums’ laws. In making this decision, the Court considered the billboards, commercials, advertisements, and direct mail which were seen or circulated within Minnesota and Montana. The Court referred to language from World-Wide Volkswagen, to reach this decision: “An automaker regularly marketing a vehicle in a State has “clear notice” that it will be subject to jurisdiction in the State’s court when its product malfunctions there (regardless of where it was first sold).” (Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 592 U.S. ___ (2021)).
Although the Court did not explicitly complete a reasonableness analysis as it did in Asahi, it said “precisely because jurisdiction is so reasonable, it is also predictable.” The Court also said that principles of interstate federalism supported jurisdiction in its analysis. It examined the states’ interests in providing a forum for their injured residents to sue, enforcing their safety regulations, and the lack of any real interest on the part of any other states in providing a forum. Ford Motor Company is a multi-billion-dollar company with locations throughout the United States of America. There is no burden on Ford to litigate in other states (at least when Ford has a “truckload” of contacts and sells or has sold the same type of vehicle that was involved in the accidents at issue in the underlying litigation.) The forum had a very strong interest in providing a forum for its residents, and there was no infringement on the interest of another state by litigating in the forum. Ultimately, the Court found that Ford litigating in Minnesota and Montana was reasonable.
So, the answer is: it depends! If a manufacturer, is “there” like Ford was in Ford v. Montana, it is not unreasonable to haul it into the forum where an alleged injury occurred as a result of using its product. Thus, after Ford, the rationale from World-Wide Volkswagen still controls.