State Supreme Court Issues Noteworthy Personal Jurisdiction Opinion

The New Jersey Supreme Court has recently ruled that a New Jersey court can exercise jurisdiction in a product liability action over a foreign manufacturer based on the manufacturer's relationship with a nationwide distributor and on its presence at national trade shows. Nicastro v. McIntyre Machinery America Ltd.,  No. A-29-08 (N.J. 2/2/10).

Personal jurisdiction addresses the reach of the court’s power over a party, and without such jurisdiction, any ruling by the court is not binding on the party. Plaintiff lawyers focus on personal jurisdiction as part of the equation where they can sue; defendants as part of where they can be sued properly. The rules governing personal jurisdiction are well described in numerous reference works. As a general matter, a defendant can only be sued where it has sufficient minimum contacts with the state such that a suit there does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

In 2001, plaintiff was injured while operating the McIntyre Model 640 Shear, a recycling machine used to cut metal. The Model 640 Shear was manufactured by J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd., a company incorporated in the United Kingdom, and then sold, through its exclusive United States distributor, McIntyre Machinery America, to the employer.  Plaintiff sued, alleging that the shear machine was defective in that it did not have a safety guard that allegedly would have prevented the accident. The trial court granted the foreign defendant's motion to dismiss the action, finding that the English manufacturer did not have sufficient minimum contacts with New Jersey to justify the state’s exercise of personal jurisdiction. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the exercise of jurisdiction by New Jersey “would not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” and was justified “under the ‘stream-of-commerce plus’ rationale."  Under that test, the actions of a defendant must be “purposefully directed toward the forum State” for a court of that state to exercise personal jurisdiction. Acknowledging that the English company had no presence in, or minimum contacts with, New Jersey, the state Supreme Court said plaintiff's argument for jurisdiction “must sink or swim with the stream-of-commerce theory of jurisdiction.”
 

New Jersey has a long-arm rule that permits service of process on a non-resident defendant “consistent with due process of law.”  Therefore, its courts may exercise jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant “to the uttermost limits permitted by the United States Constitution.” The Supreme Court seemed influenced by the view  that we live in a global marketplace. It also noted that a state has a strong interest in protecting its citizens from defective products as well as a paramount interest in ensuring a forum for its injured citizens who have suffered catastrophic
injuries due to allegedly defective products in the workplace. While its conception of jurisdiction must surely comport with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice, the court noted it must also reflect modern truths – the radical transformation of the international economy.

Accordingly, the court held that a foreign manufacturer will be subject to this state’s jurisdiction if it knows or reasonably should know that through its distribution scheme its products are being sold in New Jersey. A manufacturer that knows or reasonably should know that its products are distributed through a nationwide distribution system that might lead to those products being sold in any of the fifty states must expect that it will be subject to the state’s jurisdiction if one of its defective products is sold to a New Jersey consumer, causing injury. The focus under this approach is not on the manufacturer’s control of the distribution scheme, but rather on the manufacturer’s knowledge of the distribution scheme through which it is receiving economic benefits in each state where its products are sold. A manufacturer cannot shield itself merely by employing an independent distributor – a middleman – knowing the predictable route the product will take to market. If a manufacturer does not want to subject itself to the jurisdiction of a New Jersey court while targeting the United States market, then, the court said, it must take some reasonable step to prevent the distribution of its products in that state.

The power of the state to subject a person or business to the jurisdiction of its courts has evolved with the changing nature of the American economy, said the court. As the nation is part of a global economy driven by startling advances in the transportation of products and people and instantaneous dissemination of information, the expanding reach of a state court’s jurisdiction, as permitted by due process, has reflected those historical developments.

The stream-of-commerce doctrine of jurisdiction is particularly suitable in product-liability actions, opined the court. It will not necessarily be a substitute for other jurisdictional doctrines -- such as minimum contacts -- that will apply in contract and other types of cases. Within the confines of due process, jurisdictional doctrines must reflect the economic and social realities of the day. The exercise of jurisdiction by New Jersey in this case was called "a reasoned response" to the globalization of commerce that permits foreign manufacturers to market their products through distribution systems that bring those products into the state. With the privilege of distributing products to consumers comes the responsibility of answering in a New Jersey court if one of those consumers is injured by a defective product, concluded the majority.

A lengthy dissent argued that the majority had ignored the fact that the original stream of commerce idea had included the element of a manufacturer's expectation that its products will be purchased in the forum state.  It also criticized an apparent shift in focus from the defendant to the plaintiff, including the severity of injuries.

The majority's test may come to have implications for manufacturers selling to other states as well, outside New Jersey. Many foreign and out-of-state manufacturers reasonably should know that their products are distributed through a nationwide system that might result in sales in any given state. It is quite possible the U.S. Supreme Court will want to clarify the reach of the so-called stream of commerce test, which was mentioned in Justice O’Connor’s plurality opinion in
Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).

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