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By: Tyler W. Schwettman

The United States Constitution limits the ability of courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over defendants pursuant to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process clauses. Personal jurisdiction comes in two forms – general and specific. General personal jurisdiction refers to a court’s ability to hear claims involving a defendant where the defendant is “at home,” generally meaning its place of incorporation or principal place of business (i.e., its headquarters), see Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746, 751 (2014), while specific personal jurisdiction refers to a court’s ability to hear claims involving a defendant where the defendant’s contacts with the forum state arise out of or relate to the defendant’s in-state activities, see Burger King v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 (1985). While the directives may seem clear based on their plain language, the complexities involved in certain cases have resulted in lower courts being unable to clearly and consistently interpret and apply the Supreme Court’s personal jurisdiction guidelines.

In particular, the issue of specific personal jurisdiction has been a sticking point for lower courts. The Supreme Court last looked at the issue of specific personal jurisdiction in 2017 when it decided Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017). In Bristol-Myers, the Court held that specific personal jurisdiction requires that a defendant “purposefully avail itself with the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state” and that a plaintiff’s claims must “’arise out of or relate to’ the defendant’s forum conduct.” Bristol-Myers, 137 S. Ct. at 1785-86. It is the second prong of this test that remains in dispute.

The Court will again look at the issue of specific personal jurisdiction via two consolidated cases, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Ct. (Case No. 19-368) and Ford Motor Co. v. Bandemer (Case No. 19-369). The issue presented in these consolidated cases is whether the “arise out of or relate to” requirement for a state court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant under Rudzewicz is met when none of the defendant’s forum contacts caused the plaintiff’s claims, such that the plaintiff’s claims would be the same even if the defendant had no forum contacts. Specifically, Ford asks the Court to review the aforementioned Montana and Minnesota decisions that allowed personal injury suits to go forward over cars sold and manufactured out of state. Ford argues that the Montana and Minnesota courts should not have exercised personal jurisdiction because the nexus between Ford’s activities in those states and the plaintiffs’ claims was not close enough. In its petition to the Court, Ford argued that a plaintiff’s claims against it should “have at least some causal connection to some act the defendant took in, or aimed at, the forum . . .”

A victory for Ford would mean that Ford could likely reign in cases against it to its home state of Michigan and litigation burdens will be shifted substantially onto plaintiffs, while making the defense of litigation not much more convenient for automobile manufacturers like Ford, who sell vehicles all throughout the country. More broadly, a victory for Ford would make it difficult for plaintiffs to hail manufacturer-defendants into any state a product is sold, absent any specific claims  that relate to a defendant’s specific contacts with the forum state.

The recent loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sure to be felt as the Court works its way through these cases. Justice Ginsburg authored a number of the Court’s personal jurisdiction-related opinions and felt a special passion for civil procedure. Oral argument in the consolidated Ford cases is set for Wednesday, October 7, 2020 and a decision is expected some time thereafter.

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