State Supreme Court Approves Exercise of Jursidiction - Again

Regular readers of MassTortDefense know that one issue we try to keep an eye on is the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers in the U.S. courts, particularly following the Supreme Court decisions in Nicastro and Goodyear.  Readers may recall from our earlier posts that Nicastro resulted in a plurality opinion which tracked Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), concurring in the notion that the foreign product manufacturer lacked sufficient minimum contacts to allow a New Jersey court to exercise jurisdiction over it, but concluding that because this case did not present the new and special issues arising from recent changes in commerce and communication, it was unnecessary to get into full analysis of the steam of commerce issue as it might be applied to 21st century marketing. Rather, the outcome of the case could be determined by the Court’s existing precedents, which have held that a single isolated sale, even if accompanied by the kind of sales effort indicated in the record in the case, is not sufficient.

Last Fall, we posted on an Oregon case involving an allegedly defective wheel chair, in which the state court had exercised jurisdiction over the foreign manufacturer. The case arose from a fire allegedly caused by a battery charger manufactured by CTE, a Taiwanese company; the battery charger was incorporated into a motorized wheelchair. Plaintiffs allege that the fire began in the chair, because of a defect in the charger. CTE sought dismissal on the grounds the state court lacked personal jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion, and the Oregon Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for a writ of mandamus on the issue. But the Supreme Court granted review, vacated the Oregon opinion denying the manufacturer's challenge to jurisdiction, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

We mused: "On remand, it will be interesting to see what the state court does, given what many observers see as their recent resistant approach on directions from the high Court on remands."

We now have an answer, as the state court again held that the sale of the battery chargers in Oregon via an Ohio wheelchair manufacturer was sufficient to establish minimum contacts with Oregon, subjecting the foreign company to personal jurisdiction there.  See Willemsen v. Invacare Corp., No. SC S059201 (Ore., 7/19/12).


Plaintiffs relied on the specific jurisdiction branch of personal jurisdiction, which depends on an
affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation. In contrast to general, all-purpose jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction is confined to adjudication of  issues  deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction.

In this case, plaintiffs argued that the sale of Invacare wheelchairs and CTE battery chargers in Oregon provided sufficient minimum contacts with this state for Oregon courts to assert specific jurisdiction over CTE for injuries that its battery chargers allegedly caused there. One difficult issue in this case arose from the fact that CTE sold its battery chargers to Invacare in Ohio, not Oregon, and with the expectation that Invacare would sell its wheelchairs together with CTE's battery chargers nationwide, not just Oregon. Defendant contended that, because Invacare (and not CTE) is the one that targeted Oregon, CTE had not purposefully availed itself of the privilege of doing business in Oregon and, as a result, the Oregon courts may not assert jurisdiction over it. The argument was that the the mere fact that it may have expected that its battery chargers might end up in Oregon is not sufficient to give Oregon courts specific jurisdiction over it.

Defendant relied heavily on the Nicastro plurality's view that the mere fact that it was foreseeable that a defendant's products might be distributed in one or all of the 50 states was not enough; rather, the plurality would have required evidence that the out-of-state defendant had "targeted" the forum state in some way. But the Oregon court focused on Justice Breyer's concurring opinion in Nicastro, which it read to mean only that nationwide distribution of a foreign manufacturer's products is not sufficient to establish jurisdiction over the manufacturer when that effort results in only a single sale in the forum state. In this case, the record showed that, over a two-year period, Invacare sold 1,102 motorized wheelchairs with CTE battery chargers in Oregon. In the court's view, the sale of over 1,100 CTE battery chargers within Oregon over a two-year period showed a regular flow or regular course of sales in Oregon.

Defendant argued that these sales figures in Oregon were a miniscule fraction -- both in sheer numbers, as well as the proportion of end product sales in the forum -- of what a Supreme Court
majority would have found to be insufficient in Asahi. But the court concluded that the decision in Asahi "provides little assistance to CTE."

It would not be a surprise if this case found its way back to the US Supreme Court again.
 

DRI Product Liability Conference Wraps Up Today

The DRI Product Liability Seminar winds up today, with scheduled highlights including a presentation on the implications of Nicastro and Goodyear on future product liability litigation.  Readers know this is a topic of great interest at MassTortDefense, which we have posted on before a couple times.

Yesterday's highlights included discussions of the Third Restatement, and in-house counsel had a separate session on blogging.  Not the kind we do here, but the issues relating to corporate employees or the marketing department getting engaged in blogging relating to product promotion, building brand goodwill, and responding to customer questions or issues raised in the blogosphere.

Your humble author attended the session focused on Chemical and Toxic Torts, which featured an interesting presentation from Scott Scarpelli, Esq., of The Dow Chemical Company.  This veteran in-house litigator shared his perspective on the most vexing causation questions that arise in chemical-based litigation.

 

Another Federal Court Weighs In On Meaning of Nicastro

We have tried to keep an eye out for lower court cases interpreting the Supreme Court decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, as the lower courts parse through plurality, concurring and dissenting views on the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants -- with mixed results.   Now comes another decision weighing in on what standard should be applied to the proposed  exercise of personal jurisdiction over nonresident defendants. Smith v. Teledyne Continental Motors Inc., No. 9:10-cv-02152 (D.S.C., 1/3/12).
 

In 2010, a vacationer was jogging on the beach at Hilton Head, South Carolina, when he was struck and killed -- by an airplane.  The plane, operated by Smith, was a single-engine aircraft
Smith had made from a kit. As he was flying the plane up the Atlantic coast about ten miles offshore, the propeller fell off the plane and into the sea. Smith attempted to make the Hilton Head airport, but came up short, crash landing on the beach and fatally striking the 38-year-old stockbroker who left behind his wife and two small children, according to the opinion.

The widow sued the pilot, the manufacturer of the airplane’s engine, the manufacturer of the airframe, a company which had serviced the plane prior to the crash; and the manufacturer of the propeller. Smith, the pilot, also sued the manufacturers. The cases were then consolidated, and eventually Teledyne, the engine maker, and a citizen of Delaware and Alabama, challenged personal jurisdiction in South Carolina.

The district court held that jurisdiction was proper.  This case did not involve the general jurisdiction that arises from pervasive contacts with a forum, but specific jurisdiction based on Teledynes' alleged contacts and purposeful availment of the forum.  And when one looks at the facts described, the conclusion may not come as a great surprise: Over the past ten years,
Teledyne sold at least 400 engines directly to South Carolina purchasers at a cost of about $40,000 apiece for a total revenue of approximately $1,600,000. Further, its engines were installed in approximately one-third of general aviation aircraft based in South Carolina. It maintained a continuous relationship with the owners of these engines through its warranty programs. Further, it advertised in South Carolina through aviation magazines. It maintained a distributor there until 2004. It directly sold parts for its engines in the forum state through interactive websites. Significantly, Teledyne maintained ongoing relationships with at least eleven “fixed base operators” --  stores/service centers located at South Carolina airports.  Teledyne had a contract with each FBO which required them to display Teledyne’s logos and actively promote the sale of its products. Teledyne maintained a continuing interactive Internet relationship with these FBOs, through which it provides them with technical support in repairing Teledyne products. Teledyne warranty work must be performed by these FBOs. Teledyne both buys and sells products over the Internet and through retailers to South Carolina residents. It admitted it had derived over $1 million in revenue from its sales to South Carolina residents over the past 10 years.  

This certainly was NOT the most narrow list of contacts we have seen litigated.  What was more intriguing about the opinion was the test the court adopted. The court concluded that the recent decision of the Supreme Court in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), and existing Fourth Circuit precedents were dispositive of the issue at bar.  The court observed that the decision was "somewhat difficult to interpret because no single opinion was adopted by a majority of the Justices. Rather, there are three opinions which must be synthesized."  But rather than, as some courts have done, looked for the grounds upon which the concurring justices agreed with the plurality, this court saw as the “common denominator of the Court’s
reasoning,” a "position approved by at least five Justices who support the judgment” -- the “stream-of-commerce plus” rubric previously enunciated in an opinion by Justice O’Connor in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102, 112 (1987). This view has come to be known as the “stream-of-commerce plus” test. Although it did not win the support of a majority of the Court in Asahi, or since, in the view of this court, it has now done so. 

In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment, the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.  

Here, the court saw more overlap with the dissent. When the concurring Justices expressed the view that the case could be resolved by existing precedents, this meant Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Asahi, according to this district court.   

The court read the Fourth Circuit precedents as having already adopted this view and, therefore, the long-arm cases in the Fourth Circuit were not affected by Nicastro.

In applying this test, the court felt that plaintiffs had enumerated many significant contacts by which Teledyne targeted or purposefully directed commercial activities at South Carolina, as noted above.  Regarding whether the exercise of jurisdiction based on those minimum contacts would offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice, the court decided that the additional burden on the defendant was relatively slight as compared to the cost of litigating the matter in its home state because Teledyne had a national presence and organization. The interests of the forum state were extremely strong, in that South Carolina, located on a major coastal air corridor, had a compelling interest in protecting its citizens and visitors and their property from damage from falling airplanes.  

Motion denied, case to proceed in South Carolina.

Fifth Circuit Given Opportunity to Clarify Impact of Nicastro

Another federal appeals court will have an opportunity to assess the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro. In Ainsworth v. Cargotec USA Inc., No. 2:10-cv-00236 (S.D. Miss., 12/15/11), the district court certified for interlocutory appeal its opinion finding personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant in a forklift case.

Readers will recall that Nicastro resulted in a 6-3 decision with a plurality opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Breyer and Alito concurring in the judgment; and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan dissenting. Justice Kennedy addressed the stream of commerce notion, stating that no “stream-of-commerce” doctrine can displace that general rule of purposeful availment, even for products liability cases. He acknowledged that the standards for determining state jurisdiction over an absent party have been a bit unclear because of decades-old questions left open in Asahi Metal Indus. Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).  This imprecision arising from Asahi, for the most part, resulted from its statement of the relation between jurisdiction and the notion of placing a product in the “stream of commerce.” That concept, like other metaphors, has its "deficiencies as well as its utilities." A defendant’s placement of goods into commerce “with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers within the forum State” may sometimes indicate purposeful availment. But that does not swallow the general rule of personal jurisdiction. The principal inquiry in cases of this sort is still whether the defendant’s activities manifest an intention to submit to the power of a sovereign. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, agreed in the result, but concluded that because this case did not present the new and special issues arising from recent changes in commerce and communication, it was unnecessary to get into full analysis of the steam of commerce issue as it might be applied to 21st century marketing.

Since then, lower courts have continued to grapple with the meaning of the decision, with most recognizing that merely depositing goods in the stream of commerce, with knowledge that some will end up in the forum state, is not enough to satisfy the minimum contacts standard for personal jurisdiction.

Here, plaintiffs were the survivors of a Mississippi resident who was struck and killed by a forklift designed and manufactured by defendant Moffett Engineering, an Irish corporation, with its principal place of business is in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. (This is a "wee county" steeped in myth and legend, named for a Celtic pagan god.)  Moffett has never maintained a physical presence in Mississippi. It does not own, possess, or use any property in Mississippi. It has never had any officers, employees, or agents stationed in Mississippi, and it has never sent any of its employees to Mississippi for business purposes. It has never directly shipped or sold any of its products to customers there, and it has never directly solicited business from any company located in Mississippi. Moffett sold all of its products to defendant Cargotec, which had the exclusive right to market and sell Moffett’s products pursuant to a contract which specifically defines the U.S. as Cargotec’s sales territory. Cargotec sells or markets Moffett products in all fifty states. Moffett does not attempt to limit the territory in which Cargotec sells its products. Further, Moffett does not communicate with the end-purchasers of its products in any fashion, and it is not aware of their identities or locations. Cargotec sold 203 of those forklifts to customers in Mississippi, about 1.55% of Moffett’s United States sales.

The district court previously denied Moffett’s Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
Ainsworth v. Cargotec USA, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49665, at *21 (S.D. Miss. May 9, 2011). After that decision, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Robert Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011). Moffett filed a Motion for Reconsideration, arguing that decision controlled this dispute.

The district court denied the motion again, and concluded that Justice Breyer’s Nicastro opinion was only applicable to cases presenting the same factual scenario as that case.

But the court did agree the decision involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion (noting at least one decision employing the stricter analysis from Justice Kennedy’s plurality opinion, Keranos, LLC v. Analog Devices, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102618, at *29-*30 (E.D. Tex. Sept. 12, 2011)).  Review would materially advance the litigation, concluded the court, certifying it to the Fifth Circuit.  A case to keep our eye on.

 


 

Appeals Court Rejects Personal Jurisdiction Over Foreign Manufacturer

As we have noted for reader, lower courts continue to work to interpret and apply the Supreme Court's decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  Earlier this week, a California appeals court found that the lower court should not have exercised personal jurisdiction over a Canadian unit of Dow Chemical Co. See Dow Chemical Canada ULC v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B222609 Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist.) (unpubl.).

The court noted that this case presented a question left open in Asahi Metal Industry Co., Ltd. v.
Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), but now resolved by J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S.Ct. 2780 (2011):  whether merely placing products into the stream of commerce in a foreign country (or another state), aware that some may or will be swept into the forum state, is enough to subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction—or whether due process requires that the defendant have engaged in additional conduct, directed at the forum, before it can be
found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within
the forum state.  The court concluded that  defendant Dow Chemical Canada ULC was not subject to jurisdiction because it did not  purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state.

Plaintiffs were allegedly injured in an accident involving a 1996 Sea-Doo watercraft. This product liability action was subsequently brought against Dow Chemical Canada ULC (Dow), among others, based on an alleged defect in the fuel tank.  Dow appeared specially and moved to
quash service of the summons on the ground that it lacked the requisite minimum contacts with California to justify the state’s assertion of personal jurisdiction. Its principal place of business was Calgary, Alberta, Canada; it had never advertised any products in California. The gas tanks and gas filler tank necks that were the subject of this litigation were sold exclusively in Canada pursuant to purchase order agreements entered into in Canada. Plaintiff contended, however, that the court had specific jurisdiction because Dow allegedly knew that its gas tanks were being installed in products that would be sold in the United States, including California.

The trial court rejected Dow’s motion; the court of appeals denied Dow’s petition for writ of
mandate; the California Supreme Court denied Dow’s timely petition for discretionary
review. But the United States Supreme Court granted Dow’s petition for certiorari on June
28, 2011, ordered that the judgment be vacated and remanded the matter for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

On remand, the court said it was facing the question whether merely depositing goods in the stream of commerce, with knowledge that some will end up in a finished product manufactured
by another and sold in the forum state, is enough to satisfy the minimum contacts standard for personal jurisdiction.  The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the power of a state court to exert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant.  The  constitutional touchstone of the determination whether an exercise of personal jurisdiction comports with due process remains whether the defendant purposefully established “minimum contacts” in the forum state.

In Asahi, the United States Supreme Court split on the impact of placing a product into the stream of commerce, with a fractured set of opinions, expressing separate standards for deciding the issue, none of which received the support of a majority of the Court.  Under Justice O’Connor’s view, placement of a product into a stream of commerce with awareness that it may be carried into a forum state would not, by itself, be adequate for the exercise of jurisdiction over a defendant. A defendant’s awareness that the stream of commerce may or will sweep the product into the forum state does not convert the mere act of placing the product into the stream into an act purposefully directed toward the forum state.  But Justice Brennan expressed the position that a chain of distribution carrying a product into the forum could be adequate to permit the exercise of jurisdiction over foreign defendants, because the stream of commerce refers not to unpredictable currents or eddies, but to the regular and anticipated flow of products from manufacture to distribution to retail sale.

According to the California court on remand here, in J. McIntyre Machinery v. Nicastro, the Supreme Court resolved the question in Asahi left unresolved by the competing opinions. The stream of commerce, like other metaphors, has its deficiencies as well as its utility. It refers to the movement of goods from manufacturers through distributors to consumers, yet beyond that descriptive purpose its meaning is far from exact. The principal inquiry in cases of this sort, said the plurality, is whether the defendant’s activities manifest an intention to submit to the power of a
sovereign. In other words, the defendant must purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections
of its laws. The concurrence in Nicastro noted no evidence of a “regular course” of sales into the state, so there was no "something more," such as special state-related design, advertising, advice, marketing, or anything else.

Here, at no time did Dow engage in any activities in California that revealed an intent to invoke or benefit from the protection of its laws. Nor was there any evidence that the design of Dow’s product was in any way California-specific. It was not sufficient for jurisdiction in this case that the
defendant might have predicted or known that its products would reach California.  Defendant never undertook to ship its components to California; it supplied its gas tanks and filler necks exclusively in Canada. It matters not whether it knew or could have predicted that another party would sell the finished Sea-Doos incorporating the gas tanks in California. Dow did not advertise or market products in California; it never sold products in, or directly to customers in, California; it never maintained an office or other facility of any kind in California; it had never been qualified to do business in California; and  it had no agent for service of process in California.

Due process requires that Dow would have engaged in more than that, in additional conduct directed at the forum, before it could be found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within California. 
 

 

Lower Courts Grapple With Meaning of Nicastro (Part II)

Last post we talked about a federal district court attempting to apply the Supreme Court's decision in J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  This time, a state court.

In Soria v. Chrysler Canada Inc., No. 2-10-1236 (App. Ct. Ill., 10/24/11), the court modified an earlier opinion to account for Nicastro. But it still concluded that a Canadian automobile assembler was properly subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois, regardless of the new decision.

This suit arose out of a vehicle collision in which plaintiff alleged that she was a passenger in a 1998 Plymouth Voyager minivan assembled by Chrysler Canada in Windsor, Canada. Plaintiff alleged she suffered a severe eye injury after the door to a passenger airbag module fractured during airbag deployment, sending out plastic fragments. Plaintiff alleged that Chrysler
Canada was negligent in its manufacture, assembly, design, testing, inspection, and sale of the airbag module doors.

Regarding jurisdictional contacts, plaintiff alleged that Chrysler Canada knew that thousands of minivans and vehicles it manufactured were sold in the United States, including thousands in Illinois; about 85% of its production was exported to the United States in some years; it allegedly delivered its minivans and vehicles into the stream of commerce with the expectation that a certain percentage would be sold in Illinois; it did business in Illinois within the meaning of the Illinois long-arm statute; and it (along with Chrysler United States) designed, developed, assembled, manufactured, distributed, and transferred into the stream of commerce the Plymouth Voyager in which plaintiff was a passenger during the collision.

In contrast, Chrysler Canada argued that it was incorporated in Canada, had its principal place of
business in Canada, and never transacted business, entered into contracts, owned real estate,
maintained a corporate presence, telephone number, tax identification number, employees or agents in Illinois. Further, it contended that it did not ship, deliver, distribute, or sell the minivan in
Illinois. Finally, Chrysler asserted that its website was not directed to or interactive with Illinois
residents. 

The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss.

The appellate court noted the defendant's argument that mere awareness that vehicles it assembled might be distributed by Chrysler United States to Illinois did not show sufficient minimum contacts. Plaintiff responded that Chrysler Canada had sufficient minimum contacts and was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in Illinois because it knew that the vehicles it assembled for Chrysler United States entered Illinois through the stream of commerce and because it intentionally served the United States market, including Illinois, by indirectly shipping its vehicles to the forum.

Chrysler urged that beyond its mere awareness that some of the vehicles it assembled “may”
be swept into Illinois through the stream of commerce, there were no purposeful contacts (and,
therefore, no sufficient minimum contacts) by Chrysler Canada directed at Illinois. Specifically,
Chrysler Canada contended that it did not engage in commercial activities or other purposeful
contacts in Illinois. Further, it did not receive vehicle orders from United States customers or
dealerships; did not sell (or have control over the distribution of) vehicles to United States
customers or dealerships; and did not ship vehicles to United States customers or dealerships.
 

The court reviewed the Supreme Court jurisprudence on personal jurisdiction, and in particular, the debate over the so-called "stream-of-commerce" theory of jurisdiction, which has commanded the approval of as many as 4 Justices at various times.  The court concluded that under either a broad or narrow version of the stream-of-commerce theory, the trial court correctly found that sufficient minimum contacts exist to exercise personal jurisdiction over Chrysler Canada.

Chrysler Canada was not only aware that its products are distributed in Illinois (thus, the court thought, satisfying the narrow stream-of-commerce theory), but it had also purposefully directed its activities toward Illinois.  While it is essential in each case that there be some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws, when a commercial actor’s efforts are purposefully directed toward residents of a state, the absence of physical contacts does not alone defeat personal jurisdiction there, concluded the court.

The court found persuasive that the United States market, including Illinois, was Chrysler Canada’s primary market. Deposition testimony reflected that Chrysler Canada is aware that 82%
of its production (albeit not all of which consists of Plymouth Voyager minivans) was distributed,
through an established distribution channel, within the United States. During the relevant period,
Chrysler Canada indirectly shipped products into the American market, including Illinois, through
Chrysler United States, its parent corporation. The court agreed with plaintiff’s assertion that Chrysler Canada continuously and intentionally served or targeted this market and was set up to manufacture vehicles for (and derived significant revenue from) the United States market, including Chrysler dealerships throughout Illinois.

Much of that analysis skipped over the very thorny issue of the distinction between efforts to target the US market, in general, but including the forum state, and those that target a specific state, the forum state.  Perhaps the court was influenced by the fact that Chrysler Canada conceded that, during 2008 and 2009, Chrysler United States ordered 28,000 vehicles of various makes and models, including minivans, for its independently-owned dealerships in Illinois. Also, unlike some product sellers, Chrysler Canada was specifically aware of the final destination of every product (i.e., vehicle) that it assembled. Thus, according to the court, Chrysler Canada had an expectation that its products would be purchased by Illinois consumers and, given the continuous nature of its assembly relationship with Chrysler United States, its contacts with Illinois were not random, fortuitous, or attenuated.

 

Lower Courts Grapple With Nicastro Meaning

We have posted before about the thorny and important issue of U.S. courts exercising personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided two important personal jurisdiction cases, J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343, and Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76, the first high court opinions on this issue in two decades.  But because the former was a plurality decision, lower courts have continued to struggle.

In the past few weeks, two courts have confronted what type of conduct may subject a foreign product maker to personal jurisdiction.  The first today, and the second in a later post.

In Windsor v. Spinner Industry Co., No. 1:10-cv-00114 (D.Md., 10/20/11), plaintiffs alleged that the front wheel of their bicycle dislodged, causing him and his toddler son, Tyler, to be thrown to the ground. Defendant  Joy is a Taiwanese corporation that designs and manufactures bicycle components, including a mechanism called a “quick release skewer,” which is used to hold wheels in place. Plaintiffs alleged that their bicycle contained one of Joy’s quick release skewers and that a defect in the skewer contributed to the cause of their accident.

The parties agreed that Joy sells its products to distributors, manufacturers, and trading companies who then market them in every state in the U.S., but that Joy has no direct contacts with the forum state of Maryland. Plaintiffs contended that the nationwide marketing of Joy’s products by intermediaries created sufficient minimum contacts between Joy and Maryland to subject Joy to specific jurisdiction there. Joy moved to dismiss.

The district court noted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment sets the outer boundaries of state judicial authority. See Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 131 S.Ct. 2846, 2853 (2011). Consistent with due process, jurisdiction over non-resident defendants exists only to the extent that the defendants have certain minimum contacts with the state such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

Readers know that such contacts, if they exist, can give rise to one of two species of personal jurisdiction: general or specific. General jurisdiction exists where a non-resident maintains “continuous and systematic” contacts with the forum state. Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 416 (1984). Under these conditions, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant in any suit properly before them, even if the subject matter is completely unrelated to the defendant’s activities in the forum. Specific jurisdiction arises where a non-resident lacks continuous and systematic contacts with the forum, but has nonetheless purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state. Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958). Under these latter circumstances, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant only with respect to claims that arise out of the defendant’s activities in the forum.

The issue presented in this case was the extent to which a state may exercise specific jurisdiction over a non-resident manufacturer whose only connection to the forum is that its products were sold there by third-party distributors. Although the idea that jurisdiction automatically travels with the chattels has long been rejected, some courts have at times endorsed a so-called “stream of commerce” doctrine, approving the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum state.

The Supreme Court in  McIntyre addressed, but split, on how to handle these issues. The deciding votes were cast by Justices Breyer and Alito, who concurred in the judgment reversing the New Jersey Supreme Court. In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment,  the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.

With that understanding, the facts alleged, even if proven, would be insufficient to demonstrate jurisdiction over Joy, said the court. First, although plaintiffs made much of the Internet marketing of Joy’s products, the web presence of Joy or its distributors in Maryland was immaterial because plaintiffs did not purchase their bicycle on the Internet. Further, plaintiffs offered no details about the particular chain of distribution that brought the allegedly defective skewer to the end seller.  At best, plaintiffs’ theory of jurisdiction amounted to no more than the “knew or should have known” standard that the Supreme Court explicitly rejected in McIntyre.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that jurisdiction was proper because certain of the manufacturers and distributors to whom Joy sold its products not only market their products in Maryland, but maintain established channels of distribution there.  The argument was that where a foreign manufacturer sells its products to large national retail chains that have an established and ongoing presence in every state in the U.S., such a relationship evinces more than the mere foreseeability, but an actual intent to serve the forum market, and hence purposeful availment. But the court found this line of reasoning indistinguishable from the clearly rejected position  that jurisdiction lies in a forum when a defendant places its product in the stream of commerce with the expectation that it will be sold there.