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Faculty and Scholarship

SCOTUS Analysis: Ford Motor Co. and personal jurisdiction

Professor Richard D. Freer |

“Personal jurisdiction” sounds legalistic and distant. But this doctrine affects everyday access to justice. It concerns a court’s authority over the defendant in a civil case.  Without it, the forum court cannot act. There are two varieties of personal jurisdiction: “general jurisdiction” (which permits a court to hear a case concerning something the defendant did anywhere in the world) and “specific jurisdiction” (which permits a court to adjudicate only if the plaintiff’s claim is connected to the defendant’s activity in the forum state).

Historically, general jurisdiction permitted a plaintiff to sue a corporation wherever that company had “continuous and systematic” activities. For instance, a Georgia resident injured in a Walmart store in Alaska (by the alleged negligence of Walmart) could sue Walmart in Georgia. Walmart’s continuous and systematic ties with Georgia subjected it to general jurisdiction: it could be sued in Georgia for a claim arising from its alleged negligence in Alaska. 

For reasons unexplained, Justice Ginsburg led the Court in restricting general jurisdiction. As a result, today, a corporation is subject to general jurisdiction only where it as “at home,” which means: (1) where it is incorporated; and (2) where it maintains its principal place of business (apparently its headquarters). Accordingly, the Georgia resident injured in a Walmart store in Alaska may sue Walmart only in Delaware (where it is incorporated), Arkansas (where it is headquartered), or Alaska (where the harm was suffered).  She cannot sue Walmart in her home state; she must venture to another forum and litigate either on Walmart’s home turf or in a state thousands of miles from her home.

The restriction of general jurisdiction has required the Court to address a new class of case: one in which the defendant has continuous and systematic ties with the forum but is no longer subject to general jurisdiction. Such cases must be handled, if at all, by specific jurisdiction. To invoke specific jurisdiction, though, the plaintiff’s claim must be sufficiently connected to the defendant’s contact with the forum state.  In Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017), the Court rejected jurisdiction in California for claims by non-Californians because neither those plaintiffs nor the allegedly defective product had any contact with California. The decision led many to ask whether, in product liability cases, specific jurisdiction requires that the product be designed or manufactured in the forum state or sold in substantial numbers in the “stream of commerce.”

We now know that the answer to that question is no, at least sometimes. On March 25, 2021, the Court decided companion cases in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, 141 S. Ct. 1017. In each, the plaintiff, a resident of the forum state, was injured in that state by an allegedly faulty Ford vehicle. Ford did not design or manufacture the vehicle in the state; neither did it sell the vehicle to a dealer in the state. Ford had nothing to do with the vehicle’s getting into the state; the plaintiffs bought the cars in a secondary market through a private sale.

The Court upheld jurisdiction. For specific jurisdiction, the plaintiff’s claim must “arise out of or relate to” the defendant’s activities in the state. In Ford, the Court parsed that phrase and held that a claim can “relate to” the defendant’s activities even without a causal relationship. According to the Court, it is enough that Ford – through advertising, maintaining retail dealerships, and providing parts and service for Ford vehicles – created a market in the state for its cars. The fact that the plaintiff was harmed in the state by the same type of vehicle marketed in the forum “relates to” the creation of the market and triggers specific jurisdiction.

Ford constitutes a rare personal jurisdiction victory for plaintiffs in product liability cases (and, frankly, a rare triumph of common sense over the formalism that has characterized much of the Court’s personal jurisdiction jurisprudence). But the plaintiff’s bar should be careful-–even though the eight Justices who participated all agreed on the result. First, the majority opinion is narrow--it may not apply, for example, when the plaintiff is not a resident of the forum state or if the defendant does not market that exact model of vehicle in the state. Second, the majority appears to endorse the notion that a defendant with relatively greater contact with the forum may be subjected to specific jurisdiction based upon a relatively lesser showing of relatedness. This suggestion may create some tension, though, with the Court’s rejection of a “sliding scale” approach in Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Moreover, three Justices concurred in two separate opinions. Each raises fundamental questions about the proper analytical approach to personal jurisdiction, which will encourage future litigants to do the same.  These doctrinal disagreements may take on greater importance when Justice Barrett (who did not participate in Ford) weighs in on personal jurisdiction.  

The ultimate impact of Ford, then, is unclear. Despite unanimity on the result, the Court did not speak with one voice. But the majority’s embrace of a broad concept of relatedness holds promise for an expansion of specific jurisdiction-–one that can remedy the gap created by the Court’s restriction of general jurisdiction and enhance plaintiff access to convenient courts.