The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court — the Court’s most recent comprehensive statement on specific personal jurisdiction — has rightfully received a great deal of attention. In that opinion, the Court emphasized that the touchstone for specific jurisdiction is a direct connection between the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s activity in the forum. In so holding, the Court also recognized that significant contacts in the forum unconnected to a plaintiff's claims are simply irrelevant to the specific jurisdiction analysis. Trial courts presented with the opportunity to apply Bristol-Myers Squibb have focused on the Supreme Court’s admonition to focus on the forum contacts, if any, that are connected to a plaintiff’s claims.
The Supreme Court Clarifies the Test for Specific Jurisdiction
Bristol-Myers Squibb arose in the mass tort context where non-resident plaintiffs who claimed injury from outside the forum joined claims with forum-resident plaintiffs. As a result, many wondered how broadly the opinion would be applied to scenarios where plaintiffs filed suit in the jurisdiction where they sustained their claimed injuries. Now that 12 months have passed since the decision, federal district courts have had the opportunity to apply its teachings to various settings, notably including product liability cases. The resulting opinions have made clear that Bristol-Myers Squibb applies with full force in cases where plaintiffs have sued in the forum where they sustained their claimed injuries. This has significant implications for product manufacturers — such as manufacturers of aviation components or aircraft — that travel across multiple jurisdictions, often without any action from the manufacturers themselves.
An Accident in the Forum Is Not a Relevant Contact
Hinkle, which we discussed in an earlier Transportation Legal Update, was an early indication that the reasoning of Bristol-Myers Squibb was not limited to situations where plaintiffs filed suit outside the jurisdiction where they were injured. That case involved an aircraft manufactured by Cirrus, a Minnesota and Wisconsin corporation, which was sold to a Florida-resident pilot that ultimately crashed in South Carolina. Plaintiffs filed suit in the District of South Carolina. See 2017 WL 4574794 (Oct. 12, 2017). The court dismissed the suit despite the fact that Cirrus maintained authorized service centers in the forum. Relying on Bristol-Myers Squibb, the court reasoned that those forum contacts lacked any connection to the plaintiffs’ cause of action.
Forum Contacts Unrelated to Plaintiffs’ Claims Are Irrelevant
The trend of applying Bristol-Myers Squibb to cases where the plaintiff files suit in the forum where the injury was sustained continues today. Just this week, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed such a product liability suit in Goellner-Grant v. JLG Industries, Inc., 2018 WL 3036453 (June 19, 2018). There, plaintiffs filed suit stemming from a fatal accident in Missouri involving an industrial lift manufactured by JLG, a Pennsylvania corporation. JLG moved to dismiss, arguing that there was no specific jurisdiction because plaintiffs’ claims did not arise out of any of JLG’s Missouri activity — JLG sold the lift in question to a company in Kansas, who then sold and shipped it to the decedents’ employer in Missouri. Plaintiffs countered that although the lift was sold in a different forum, JLG provides sales and service locations in Missouri, thereby benefitting from contacts with the forum. The court rejected this argument as missing the distinction between general and personal jurisdiction. Following the exact logic applied in Bristol-Myers Squibb, the court reasoned that “[t]he presence of a distribution network in Missouri for JLG lifts unrelated to the lift at issue in this litigation is not relevant to th[e] court’s specific jurisdiction inquiry.” Underscoring the importance of carefully analyzing the connection between a defendant’s purposeful activity in the forum and the plaintiffs’ claim, the court also reasoned that “the fact that JLG was subject to personal jurisdiction in [the forum] in a different lawsuit involving wholly different facts does not mean that personal jurisdiction attaches for this lawsuit.”
While many jurisdictions have not yet had the opportunity to apply Bristol-Myers Squibb, indications to date point to the opinion having broad-reaching effects. Product manufacturers in particular should take note and carefully analyze the connection, if any, between a plaintiffs’ claim and the company’s activities in the forum.