Foreign Manufacturer Liability Act Unlikely to Pass Soon

We have posted before about efforts to pass legislation that would impact the ability of U.S. consumers to sue foreign manufacturers.

As the end of the year approaches, it appears that the latest version, the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act (FMLAA) of 2011, will not be approved. Senate Bill 1946 and House of Representatives Bill 3646 are among the latest attempts to impact suits against foreign product makers.  Both would require foreign manufacturers importing products into the U.S. to establish a registered agent to accept service of process. And the registration of the agent would constitute consent to the personal jurisdiction in the U.S.  

Earlier versions of the legislation gained support in the wake of issues relating to products from China and, especially, the Chinese drywall litigation. Supporters of the legislation included some domestic industries, such as textiles. They also garnered opposition from foreign governments, some U.S. manufacturer groups, and non-U.S. manufacturers in the European Union and the Confederation of Indian Industry, and others. Even supporters noted that the bills did not directly address another related issue, the enforcement of U.S. judgments overseas. 

 

Raw Material Suppliers Not Liable for Worker Injuries

A California appeals court ruled last week that several raw material suppliers could not be held liable for injuries allegedly sustained by a worker as a result of using their raw materials. See John Maxton v. Western States Metals, et al., No. B227000 (Cal. Ct. App., 2d Dist., 2/1/12).

Plaintiff alleged he sustained personal injuries as a result of working with metal products manufactured by defendants and supplied to Maxton‘s employer. The metal products were essentially raw materials that could be used in innumerable ways. The products at issue consisted of steel and aluminum ingots, sheets, rolls, tubes and the like. Plaintiff alleged he
worked with and around each of these metal products in cutting, grinding, sandblasting, welding, brazing, and other activities. This allegedly resulted in the generation and release of toxicologically significant amounts of toxic airborne fumes and dusts. As a direct result of this exposure, Maxton claimed he developed lung disease. 

Generally, suppliers of raw materials to manufacturers cannot be liable for negligence, or under a strict products liability theory, to the manufacturers‘ employees who sustain personal injuries as a result of using the raw materials in the manufacturing process. Only in extraordinary circumstances —such as when the raw materials are contaminated, the supplier exercises substantial control of the manufacturing process, or the supplier provides inherently dangerous raw materials— can suppliers be held liable. So the first issue was whether such circumstances existed here.

A few courts have imposed liability on suppliers of raw asbestos materials under negligence and strict liability causes of action.  The second issue was whether asbestos is unique in that it is inherently dangerous, and thus whether the holdings of those asbestos cases would be extended here.

Defendants mounted two kinds of challenges to the complaint. Some defendants filed demurrers; others filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court sustained the demurrers and granted the motions.  Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted that the component parts doctrine is set forth in section 5 of the Restatement Third of Torts, Products Liability, which provides:
―One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing product components who sells or distributes a component is subject to liability for harm to persons or property caused by a product into which the component is integrated if:
―(a) the component is defective in itself, and the defect causes the harm; or
―(b)(1) the seller or distributor of the component substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product; and (2) the integration of the component causes the product to be defective, and  (3) the defect in the product causes harm.

Product components include raw materials, bulk products, and other constituent products sold for integration into other products. The metal products at issue here were clearly raw materials because they could be used in innumerable ways, and they were not sold directly to consumers in the market place. Rather, they were sold to plaintiff‘s employer for the purpose of using them to manufacture other products. The metal products in this case were closer to raw materials like kerosene than they were to more developed components of finished products, such as airbags in cars, because they can be used in innumerable ways.

Under California law, component and raw material suppliers are not liable to ultimate consumers when the goods or material they supply are not inherently dangerous, they sell goods or material in bulk to a sophisticated buyer, the material is substantially changed during the manufacturing process, and the supplier has a limited role in developing and designing the end product. When these factors exist, the social cost of imposing a duty to the ultimate consumers far exceeds any additional protection provided to consumers. The rationale for not imposing liability on a supplier of product components is a matter of equity and public policy. Such suppliers ordinarily do not participate in developing the product components into finished products for consumers. Imposing liability on suppliers of product components would force them to scrutinize the buyer-manufacturer‘s manufacturing process and end-products in order reduce their exposure to lawsuits. This would require many suppliers to retain experts in a huge variety of areas, especially if the product components are versatile raw materials. Courts generally do not impose this onerous burden on suppliers of product components because the buyer- manufacturer is in a better position to ensure safety.

Although the complaint stated the legal conclusion that the metal products were inherently hazardous, the facts alleged indicated otherwise. Maxton was not injured by simply handling the metal itself, or even the final product containing the metal. Instead, Maxton was injured as a result of the manufacturing process, which altered the form and risks of the products. 

As for the contention that the metal products involved here were analogous to asbestos, the court disagreed. Asbestos itself is dangerous when handled in any form even if it is unchanged by the manufacturer. Indeed, asbestos is dangerous when it leaves the supplier‘s control. By contrast, the metal products in this case were not dangerous when they left defendants‘ control. They only became allegedly dangerous because of the manufacturing process controlled by the employer. (Nothing in the complaint indicated that defendants played any role whatsoever in developing or designing the end products.) 

The court of appeals declined to impose the social cost, meaning the practical burdens that liability would place on defendants as suppliers of the ubiquitous metal products involved in this case. Defendants would be required to assess the risks of using their metal products to manufacture other products. In order to make such assessments, defendants would need to retain experts on the countless ways their customers used their metal products. Defendants would also be placed in the untenable position of second-guessing their customers whenever they received information regarding potential safety problems. Courts generally do not impose this onerous burden on suppliers of product components because the buyer-manufacturers are in a better position to guarantee the safety of the manufacturing process and the end product.

Dismissal affirmed. 

 

Update on Jurisdiction Cases Pending in Supreme Court

We alerted readers recently that the Supreme Court had granted review in two product liability cases that raise cutting edge personal jurisdiction issues that may not only impact foreign manufacturers but and may also alter due process/personal jurisdiction jurisprudence generally. See J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10).

Personal jurisdiction, of course, 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. As a very 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.

The issue framed in Nicastro is: Whether, consistent with the Due Process Clause and pursuant to the stream-of-commerce theory, a state may exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer when the manufacturer targets the general, overall U.S. market for the sale of its product and that product is purchased by a forum state consumer. The corresponding issue in Brown is: Whether a foreign corporation is subject to general personal jurisdiction, on causes of action not arising out of or related to any contacts between it and the forum state, merely because other entities distribute in the forum state products placed in the stream of commerce by the defendant.

"Stream of commerce" personal jurisdiction, debated frequently in the lower courts, if recognized by the Supreme Court, might allow any state to assume jurisdiction over any product manufacturer whose product found its way into the state, no matter how many independent, separate distributors the product had passed through in separate legal transactions. The original stream of commerce idea had included the element of a manufacturer's expectation that its products will be purchased in the specific forum state. Many foreign and out-of-state manufacturers reasonably should know that their products are distributed through a system that might result in sales in any given state. Should that be enough? Readers may recall that the Supreme Court took a look at "stream of commerce" jurisdiction over 20 years ago, and split with no majority decision. But a plurality rejected the "stream of commerce" concept in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).

The foreign companies appealing the two state court rulings in two product liability cases recently filed merits briefs. See J.  McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, No. 09-1343 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown,  No. 10-76 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10). There's a link to the Goodyear brief from the ABA Supreme Court Preview, and the McIntyre brief. Also, amici curiae filed briefs, including PLAC, Dow Chemical Canada ULC, the former ATLA now know as American Association for Justice, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, and  the Organization for International Investment and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc. 

In the NJ case, the defendant asks how a “new reality” of “a contemporary international economy” permits a state to exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer pursuant to the stream of commerce theory solely because the manufacturer targets the US market for the sale of its product and the product is purchased by a forum state consumer?  The petitioner argues that the analysis in Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Asahi is the better view; first, it embodies the requirement of active engagement, of personal agency, that the Supreme Court has made the centerpiece of its formulations of personal jurisdiction limits under the Constitution. Second, it avoids the subjectivity that inheres in the test of mere awareness advanced by
Justice Brennan on the other side of the Asahi split. A concrete formulation is especially valuable in giving out-of-state actors the fair notice that the Court  has  deemed essential in allowing persons to conform their behavior to avoid, if they choose, the possibility of being haled into the courts of a state.  A defendant must intentionally act and direct that action at, and sufficiently in, the very state that seeks to exercise power over that person. Only through purposeful availment a producer will have a fair opportunity to conform its conduct so as to avoid state power if the producer chooses. To predicate jurisdiction on anything less leads to a rule where every seller of chattels would in effect appoint the chattel his agent for service of process and his amenability to suit would travel with the chattel.

 
The Goodyear brief notes that, unlike specific jurisdiction—which inherently must adapt to the permutations raised by varying claims—general jurisdiction, which does not vary from claim to claim, is more susceptible to precise rules. Indeed, one of its primary functions is to provide a certain and predictable place where a person can be reached by those having claims against him. No Supreme Court decisions have held that a manufacturer’s mere participation in the stream of
commerce could create general jurisdiction wherever the manufacturer’s products were distributed. To the contrary, most courts have repeatedly indicated that injecting a product, even in substantial volume, into a forum’s stream of commerce, without more, does not support general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction based on the stream of commerce theory violates traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice because essentially universal jurisdiction would exist in every state’s courts over every significant seller of goods, foreign or domestic. Because general jurisdiction must be justified solely by reference to the relationship between the state and the defendant, that relationship must be so significant — sufficiently substantial and of such a nature — as to give the state a basis for global judicial authority over all of the defendant’s conduct, wherever it occurs.
 

The Supreme Court has set argument in the two cases for Jan. 11, 2011. They will be argued separately.

 

Update on Foreign Manufacturers Liability Act

We have posted before about legislative efforts to make it easier for U.S. consumers to sue foreign product manufacturers.

Last week the the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a legislative hearing on H.R. 4678, the “Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act.”  The House bill  was introduced last February. The Senate's version, S. 1606, was introduced in August, 2009.

Witnesses included a representative of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Consumers Union,  American Association of Exporters and Importers, and a Professor from American University College of Law.

The Act would require foreign manufacturers and producers of several kinds of products to establish registered agents for service of process and to consent to jurisdiction here.  It appears to have bipartisan support, but raises a number of constitutional issues, and may not address the key issue of the enforceability of judgments handed down by U.S. courts.

Supporters of the bill note that the Hague Convention on Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters – of which the United States and many of its major trading partners, including China, are parties – provides a means of serving process on foreign manufacturers in their home countries.  However, this method can be time consuming and costly, because all the legal documents must be translated into the foreign manufacturer’s native language and then provided to a governmental central authority, which in turn attempts to serve the documents on the manufacturer. It can take many months for the central authority to serve the documents on the manufacturer.   In addition, even if a plaintiff successfully serves process on a foreign manufacturer, argue the supporters, the manufacturer will likely challenge the exercise of personal jurisdiction over it by a U.S. court. Before a U.S. court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant it must consider: 1) the defendant’s purposeful minimum contacts with the state in which the court sits, and 2) fairness to the defendant of being subjected to jurisdiction in that state’s courts.  Foreign manufacturers have increasingly turned to litigating this issue to avoid being hauled into U.S. courts.

The Act would require foreign manufacturers and producers that import products into the United States to designate a registered agent who is authorized to accept service of process here in the United States. The agent would have to be registered in a state with a substantial connection to the importation, distribution, or sale of products of the foreign manufacturer or producer. CPSC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency would each be required to determine, based on the value or quantity of goods manufactured or produced, which foreign manufacturers and producers under their respective authority would be required to designate a registered agent. Registering an agent consistent with the Act constitutes acceptance by the manufacturer of personal jurisdiction of the state and federal courts of the state in which the agent is located.

AAEI, on the other hand, is particularly concerned about the impact H.R. 4678 would have on U.S. exporters if this bill is enacted by Congress. If the United States enacts H.R. 4678 requiring foreign manufacturers to appoint a registered agent to receive service of process, they anticipate that our trading partners will enact similar measures. It will be difficult and expensive for American exporters to maintain registered agents in all the foreign markets to which it exports. Moreover, having a registered agent in foreign markets increase the likelihood that these companies will be
subject to litigation before foreign courts in countries with legal proceedings which are less
transparent than the United States, argued AAEI.