Tuesday, October 6, 2020
The Supreme Court hears oral argument tomorrow in the much-anticipated Ford cases—the latest in the Court’s recent run of decisions on personal jurisdiction. Oral argument in the two consolidated cases was originally scheduled for last spring, but it was postponed until this week due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two cases involve a similar fact pattern. The plaintiffs were injured in accidents involving Ford vehicles, and they sued Ford in the state where they lived and where the accidents occurred. Ford is actively involved in marketing its automobiles in those states (as it is throughout the United States), including the specific kinds of automobiles involved in these accidents. Ford, however, has argued against specific jurisdiction because the vehicles involved in these accidents were initially sold to customers in other states. The vehicle involved in the Minnesota accident was initially sold to a customer in North Dakota. The vehicle involved in the Montana accident was initially sold to a customer in Washington State. Accordingly, Ford contends that its contacts with Minnesota and Montana were not the “cause” of the accidents that occurred there. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that “[s]pecific jurisdiction over a defendant is permissible where a plaintiff has been injured in the forum by a product that the defendant has systematically marketed, sold, and serviced in the forum.”
Numerous law professors have filed amicus briefs supporting personal jurisdiction in Ford (here, here, here, here, and here) and weighed in with blog posts (e.g., here and here). There is also a remarkable amicus brief filed by 39 states and the District of Columbia arguing in support of jurisdiction—a brief joined by many states whose administrations would hardly be considered friends of the plaintiffs’ bar.
Although the Supreme Court has decided lots of cases about when a defendant’s contacts are constitutionally sufficient for specific jurisdiction, it has yet to provide meaningful guidance on what sort of forum-controversy “affiliation” is required to justify specific jurisdiction. I’ve argued elsewhere that the appropriate affiliation touchstone is rationality—that is, whether there is a rational basis for the forum state to adjudicate the availability of judicial remedies in that particular case. But the Supreme Court need not go that far to uphold specific jurisdiction in Ford. The test proposed by the plaintiffs is a sensible one that vindicates the well-established notion that a defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction when it seeks to serve the market for its product in the forum state and its product causes injury there.
There’s a lot more to be said, but with this quick post I want to highlight an additional concern about Ford’s causation argument—one that could sweep beyond the precise facts of these cases and into more traditional “stream of commerce” cases where the product is purchased initially by a customer in the forum state. The plurality and concurring opinions in the Supreme Court’s McIntyre decision indicate that a single product entering the forum state is not a sufficient contact for establishing personal jurisdiction—even if that single product is the one that gives rise to the litigation. Yet Ford’s proposed causal requirement suggests that the only relevant contact is the single vehicle or piece of machinery that was involved in the accident. If that’s right, then every case might turn into McIntyre. Regardless of whether the flow of the defendant’s products into the forum state is a stream, an eddy, or a rushing river, the only contact that would count is the single drop that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. And a single drop is never enough. That would be a radical, unfortunate departure from established doctrine—and it’s another reason why the Court should uphold personal jurisdiction in the Ford cases.