Last week, the Supreme Court 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. 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 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 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 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.

Readers may recall our previous post on Nicastro. The state court held that a foreign manufacturer will be subject to its jurisdiction if it knows or reasonably should know that through its distribution scheme its products are being sold in the state. 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 consumer, causing injury, said the state court. 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.  If a manufacturer does not want to subject itself to the jurisdiction of a state 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 supposedly permitted by due process, has reflected those historical developments, found the state court.

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. 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, indirectly, 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 in Nicastro.

“Stream of commerce” personal jurisdiction, if recognized, would 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. A lengthy dissent in Nicastro 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.  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.  As applied in this case, it seems to eliminate any requirement of intentional state-specific activity by the defendant. And in that respect, has potential implications for lots of entities besides foreign product manufacturers.

You 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 Court called for these cases to be argued in tandem.  The Brown case arises from a bus accident in France that killed two North Carolina residents whose families sued foreign affiliates of Goodyear Tires.  Again this case raises the issue whether activities on the part of the foreign manufacturer should subject them to personal jurisdiction in the U.S., and whether there is “purposeful availment” just because the product is sold in a state — that is, as long as the defendant intentionally placed their products into the stream of commerce without attempting to exclude a specific state. Brown also raises the issue whether the state court confused “specific jurisdiction”–which applies only in suits arising out of or related to the defendant’s contacts with the forum–  with “general jurisdiction,” which, where applicable, permits a defendant to be haled
into court in the state on any claim whatsoever, but only when the defendant’s activities in a state are so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities.