Recent Supreme Court Decision May Force Lower Courts to Reevaluate Personal Jurisdiction Test
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, 141 S. Ct. 1017 (2021), is the latest entry in the Court’s rulings on personal jurisdiction, and may force lower courts to reevaluate jurisdictional tests that have required a plaintiff to show that a defendant’s actions in the forum state had a causative link to the plaintiff’s claims.
Applying its precedent from cases like World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980), and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., San Francisco Cty., 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017), the Court held that Ford was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in Montana and Minnesota in two lawsuits brought by forum-resident plaintiffs injured in their respective forum states in car accidents, which plaintiffs alleged occurred from defects with Ford’s Crown Victoria and Explorer models. Ford argued that specific jurisdiction was improper because it had designed, manufactured, and sold the used cars at issue outside the respective forum states. As a result, Ford contended that there was no causal connection between its conduct in the forum states and the accidents and thus they should not be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in those states.
The Supreme Court (with Justice Barrett not participating) unanimously disagreed with Ford, with Justice Kagan writing the majority opinion for five justices. The Court explained that specific jurisdiction did not require “a strict causal relationship between the defendant’s in-state activity and the litigation.” 141 S. Ct. at 1026. Instead, a “strong relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation” could suffice. Id. at 1028 (citation omitted). That strong relationship existed in Ford because Ford advertised, sold, and serviced the Crown Victoria and Explorer models in the forum states, the accidents occurred in the forum states, and the plaintiffs were residents of the forum states. See id.
The practical impact of the Ford decision is hard to predict at this point and will largely be shaped by the lower courts. The Court’s rejection of a causation-only test for specific jurisdiction may require lower courts to reframe their jurisdictional tests, especially where they had adopted “causation” tests as the framework for evaluating personal jurisdiction1. In Ford, the Supreme Court provided little guidance as to the contours of the “strong relationship” inquiry. Although the Court explained that the “strong relationship” test does not mean that “anything goes” and instead “incorporates real limits,” Ford did not provide much detail as to what those limits look like – apart from highlighting that there would be no personal jurisdiction where a plaintiff’s claims “lacked any connection” to the “forum State and the defendant’s activities there.” Id. at 1026, 1031. For example, the Court did not address a situation in which a car manufacturer “market[s] the models” of cars only in states other than the state where the accident occurs. Id. at 1028. And the Court emphasized that questions regarding specific jurisdiction and internet sales pose distinct “doctrinal questions of their own,” which the Court left for another day. Id. at 1028 n.4. Accordingly, lower courts will determine how much difference there is, in practice, between the “strong relationship” analysis articulated in Ford and the tests that some courts had been applying pre-Ford.
1 See, e.g., James Lee Constr., Inc. v. Gov’t Emps. Ins. Co., No. 20-00068, 2021 WL 1139876, at *2 (D. Mont. Mar. 25, 2021) (declining to apply Ninth Circuit’s “but-for” causation test after Ford).