The United States Supreme Court’s March 25 opinion in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, et al., 592 U.S. ____ (2021), has been highly anticipated by consumers and corporate defendants alike. Ford’s argument in the companion Minnesota and Montana cases was intriguing: even where a foreign defendant admits it has “purposefully availed” itself of the privilege of conducting activities within a state, can the forum court maintain specific jurisdiction if such conduct was not a “causal link” to the litigation? With Justice Kagan writing for five justices, the Court answered in the affirmative: “When a company like Ford serves a market for a product in a State and that product causes injury in the State to one of its residents, the State’s courts may entertain the resulting suit.”[1]

Companion Minnesota and Montana Cases

The facts of each case were similar. As specified in the Supreme Court’s holding, the Ford plaintiffs were both residents of the states in which they brought the litigation, and their injuries also occurred in the forum state.[2]

In Bandemer v. Ford Motor Company, [3] the plaintiff was a Minnesota resident injured after the airbag in his Ford Crown Victoria failed to deploy during a crash on a Minnesota road. He sued in his home state of Minnesota.[4] In Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial Circuit Court,[5] the decedent was a Montana resident who died following her Ford Explorer’s tread/belt separation on a Montana interstate. The estate sued in decedent’s home state of Montana.[6]

 

Court’s Rejection of Ford’s “Causal Link” Argument 

Plaintiffs’ state contacts notwithstanding, Ford argued the courts had jurisdiction only if its conduct in the forum states had given rise to the plaintiffs’ claims.[7] And Ford argued that “the causal link” existed only if it designed, manufactured or sold the vehicles involved in the accidents in the forum state.[8] In fact, Ford had designed the vehicles in Michigan, manufactured them in Kentucky and Canada (respectively), and originally sold the vehicles in Washington and North Dakota (respectively).[9]

The Court elaborated on its analysis of personal jurisdiction, noting that it had “long focused on the nature and extent of the defendant’s relationship” to a state.[10] Because a foreign defendant is not “at home,” a court may find specific jurisdiction in only certain cases where a plaintiff’s claims “arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.”[11] “Or put just a bit differently, there must be an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, [an] activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State’s regulation.”[12]

The Court disagreed with Ford’s “causation-only approach,” countering that it never required a “strict causal relationship” for specific jurisdiction.[13] Perhaps to drive home this proposition, the Court then took steps to parse the requirement to an either/or test – either “arising out of” or “relating to” the defendant’s contacts with the forum:

The first half of that standard asks about causation; but the back half, after the ‘or,’ contemplates that some relationships will support jurisdiction without a causal showing. That does not mean anything goes. In the sphere of specific jurisdiction, the phrase ‘relate to’ incorporates real limits, as it must to adequately protect defendants foreign to a forum. But again, we have never framed the specific jurisdiction inquiry as always requiring proof of causation – i.e. defendant’s in-state conduct. So the case is not over even if, as Ford argues, a causal test would put jurisdiction in only the State of first sale, manufacture, and design. A different State’s courts may yet have jurisdiction, because of another ‘activity or occurrence’ involving the defendant that takes place in the State.[14]

In fact, the Court pointed to both World Wide Volkswagen[15] and Daimler[16] to illustrate that specific jurisdiction had attached in cases “identical” to the ones here.[17] In finding that both forum states have specific jurisdiction over Ford, the Court clearly viewed Ford’s business dealings in the respective states through the filter of the in-state plaintiffs and their in-state injuries. Noting that Ford had purposefully availed itself of the two states’ markets through billboards, TV and radio spots, print ads, direct mail, sales, dealerships and distribution of replacement parts – all “making it easier to own a Ford” – the Court reasoned that it systemically served the markets “for the very vehicles that the plaintiffs allege malfunctioned and injured them in those States.”[18] In the Court’s view, these actions amounted to a “strong relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.”[19] Moreover, the Court held that finding specific jurisdiction also supported principles of “interstate federalism” where the forum states had significant interests at stake such as providing their residents with a convenient forum and enforcing their own safety regulations.[20] Given “the connection between the plaintiffs’ claims and Ford’s activities in those States,” the Court held that the relationship among the defendant, forums and litigation were “close enough to support specific jurisdiction.”[21]

 

Potential Impact on Future Litigation

By narrowly tailoring its holding to when a foreign defendant engages in a state’s market for a product, and that product causes injury in the state to one of its residents, the Court arguably didn’t create any waves in the specific jurisdiction analysis. The applicability of a defendant’s contacts with a state may increase when a resident plaintiff is injured in the forum, thereby making it easier to find the relationship among the defendant, forum and litigation are “close enough to support specific jurisdiction.” And certainly the “interstate federalism” principles noted in Ford would not easily transfer where there are no in-state residents to whom the state can provide a convenient forum, and no injured residents requesting the state to enforce safety regulations.

That being said, a new concern for foreign defendants is the Court’s deconstruction of the “arise out of or relate to” standard. In rejecting Ford’s “causation-only” argument, the Court’s edict was that it has never framed the specific jurisdiction inquiry as requiring proof of causation (the arise out of option), but that a state’s courts may also have jurisdiction because of an “activity or occurrence” in the state involving the defendant (the relate to option).[22] As Justice Gorsuch noted in his concurring opinion, the majority states that an affiliation, relationship or connection can suffice to establish the relate to prong of the specific jurisdiction analysis – but the effect of this standard is unknown.[23] And while the majority promises that its new test does not mean “anything goes,” it “hardly tells us what does.”[24] As a result, going forward a foreign defendant should consider all in-state activities that may demonstrate a relationship between the defendant and the forum state, especially in the context of a plaintiff and his or her claims.

 

[1] Ford Motor Co. 592 U.S. ____ at 1-2 (2021)

[2] Contrast Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Super Court of Cal., San Francisco Cty., 582 U.S. ___ (2017).

[3] Bandemer v. Ford Motor Company, 931 N.W.2d 744 (2019)

[4] Id.

[5] Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial Circuit Court, 443 P.3d 407 (2019)

[6] Id.

[7] Ford Motor Co., 592 U.S. ____  at 3.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 4-5.

[11] Id. at 6.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 8.

[14] Id. at 8-9.

[15] World Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 U.S. 286 (1980)

[16] Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117 (2014)

[17] Ford Motor Co., 592 U.S. ____  at 9-10 (citing World Wide Volkswagen at 297, finding it reasonable to subject an automotive manufacturer to suit in a state where its allegedly defective merchandise was the source of injury to others; and Daimler at 127, which specified a paradigm case is one where a California plaintiff, injured in a California accident involving a Daimler-manufactured vehicle, sues Daimler for defective design).

[18] Id. at 11-12.

[19] Id. at 12.

[20] Id. at 15.

[21] Id.at 18.

[22] Id. at 8-9.

[23] Id. (Gorsuch, N., concurring at 3.)

[24] Id.