Saturday, March 27, 2021
Court Says Plaintiffs Can Sue Ford Where Torts Occurred
The Supreme Court ruled this week that Ford had sufficient contacts with states where plaintiffs suffered injuries in Ford vehicles to allow the plaintiffs to sue there. The ruling means that the plaintiffs can pursue their claims against Ford in states where "Ford had systematically served a market . . . for the very vehicles" that caused the injuries, even though the plaintiffs didn't purchase their vehicles in those states, and even though Ford did not manufacture or design them there.
The holding breaks no new ground. But the reasoning might.
The case, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, arose when plaintiffs who were injured in Ford vehicles in Montana and Minnesota sued the carmaker in those states. Ford argued that the state courts lacked personal jurisdiction, however, because the plaintiffs didn't buy the cars in those states, Ford didn't manufacture the cars there, and Ford didn't design the cars there--even though it had many other contacts with those states.
In other words, Ford said that there was no causal link between its behavior in the states and the plaintiffs' injuries.
The Court rejected this approach. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court wrote that "Ford's causation-only approach finds no support in this Court's requirement of a 'connection' between a plaintiff's suit and a defendant's activities." The Court said that this result squares with language from World-Wide Volkswagen that "has appeared and reappeared in many cases since." Justice Alito summarized that language in his concurrence: "If a car manufacturer makes substantial efforts to sell vehicles in States A and B (and other States), and a defect in a vehicle first sold in State A causes injuries in an accident in State B, the manufacturer can be sued in State B."
In getting there, the Court looked to language in past opinions that said that a plaintiff's claims "must arise from or relate to the defendant's contacts" with the forum state. The Court read this as a disjunctive phrase, and said that while the first part ("arise from") requires causation, the second part ("relate to") doesn't. Even if the plaintiffs' claims here might not have "arose from" Ford contacts (in the causal sense), they certainly "related to" those contacts--and that's enough for personal jurisdiction.
Justice Alito and Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote separate concurrences taking issue with that parsing of the phrase. Justice Alito worried that "[r]ecognizing 'relate to' as an independent basis for specific jurisdiction risks needless complications." Instead, he'd "leave the law exactly where it stood before we took these cases." Justice Gorsuch said the Court's approach was "unnecessary" to resolve the case. He'd revisit the modern approach (starting with International Shoe) and look instead to "the Constitution's original meaning." He suggested that for a case like this (with a defendant "nationwide corporation" whose "business is everywhere"), the defendant could be sued anywhere.