On May 25, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Fifth District Appellate Court of Illinois to hear Ford Motor Company’s appeal on a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, which had been denied by Honorable Judge Stephen A. Stobbs, the presiding asbestos judge in Madison County. Because Madison County has long been a magnet for out-of-state plaintiffs, this appeal could have widespread ramifications for out-of-state corporations, particularly those involved in mass-tort litigation. A ruling in favor of Ford would significantly impede plaintiffs’ ability to forum shop in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions such as Madison County.
In Jeffs v. Anco Insulations, Inc., plaintiff alleges that the decedent was exposed to asbestos-containing products through his work as a union insulator at various sites. Decedent worked at the Ford plant in Michigan for six weeks in the 1970’s, but was not exposed to any Ford product or facility in Illinois.
In June 2015, Ford moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Ford relied primarily on the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Daimler AG v. Bauman, which established that a court may assert jurisdiction over a foreign corporation “only when the corporation’s affiliations with the State in which suit is brought are so constant and pervasive as to render [it] essentially ‘at home’ in that forum State.” (This is an issue that we have blogged about before – California Court rules no jurisdiction over foreign parent corporations; No in state dealings for years – no jurisdiction; Out of state defendant? Out of state exposure? File suit somewhere else; and Registered in Delaware Is Not At “Home” There.) Under the Daimler analysis, a corporation is generally “at home” only at its place of incorporation or principal place of business. Because Ford’s state of incorporation is Delaware and its principal place of business is in Michigan, Ford argued that the court could not impose jurisdiction.
In November 2015, Judge Stobbs denied Ford’s motion. Despite the standard articulated in Daimler, Judge Stobbs ruled that Ford is subject to jurisdiction in Illinois due to its substantial contacts with the state. Judge Stobbs noted that Ford conducts business in Illinois, owns real property in Illinois, has employees in Illinois, and has acquiesced to jurisdiction in Illinois in previous suits. Judge Stobbs further found that Ford provided “unequivocal consent to jurisdiction in Illinois” by virtue of its Illinois business license and appointment of a registered agent to accept process. To further bolster his decision, Stobbs relied on Ford’s recently filed brief in a separate case, Folta v. Ferro Engineering, in which Ford explicitly acknowledged its significant operations and monetary investments in Illinois.
After Judge Stobbs issued his ruling, Ford sought leave to appeal the decision. On February 10, 2016, a three member panel of the Fifth District denied Ford’s petition. Undeterred, Ford filed a motion for a supervisory order with the Illinois Supreme Court, which the court granted. A supervisory order is granted only in limited circumstances when the lower court acted in excess of its authority or abused its discretionary authority. As such, the granting of this supervisory order suggests that the Illinois Supreme Court finds Ford’s position meritorious.
A ruling in favor of Ford would undoubtedly be followed by an onslaught of personal jurisdiction motions, particularly for those out-of-state defendants caught in the web of Madison County asbestos litigation. Most of the active defendants have little or no connection with Illinois, and many cases involve non-Illinois exposures. In the interim, it remains to be seen whether Judge Stobbs will entertain any additional personal jurisdiction motions or simply stay them pending a ruling from the Fifth District Appellate Court.