In Russell v. SNFA, 2013 IL 113909, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction under the “catch-all provision” of the Illinois Long-Arm Statute, which provides that a court “may also exercise jurisdiction on any other basis … permitted by the Illinois Constitution and the Constitution of the United States.” When a plaintiff seeks to impart personal jurisdiction under subsection (c) of the Illinois Long-Arm Statute, the sole issue to be decided by the court is whether the nonresident defendant’s connection or contact with Illinois is sufficient to satisfy federal and Illinois due process. Before the court may subject the defendant to a judgment in personam, the court must consider whether the defendant has minimum contacts with Illinois and whether subjecting it to litigation in Illinois is reasonable under traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

Background

In Russell, the defendant challenged the ability of the court to assert specific personal jurisdiction under applicable provisions of the Illinois Long-Arm Statute (735 ILCS 5/2-209(a), (c) (West 2002)). The court examined subsection (c) of the Long-Arm Statute and the two-part test previously established in Rollins v. Ellwood, 141 Ill. 2d 244 (Ill. 1990), which required courts to first determine whether a specific statutory provision of § 2-209 had been satisfied, and then to determine whether the due process requirements of the U.S. and Illinois constitutions had been met. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the lower appellate court that had found the two-part test in Rollins unnecessary when subsection (c) is invoked, because subsection (c) constitutes an independent basis for exercising personal jurisdiction. The issue before the court in Russell was thus simply whether the nonresident defendant’s connection or contact with Illinois is sufficient to satisfy federal and Illinois due process.

The Facts

In Russell, the executor’s decedent died in a helicopter crash due to an alleged defect involving seven tail-rotor bearings custom made by the defendant, SNFA, a French corporation. The helicopter was manufactured by Agusta, an Italian corporation, and the crash occurred in Illinois. SNFA argued that it did not have any direct U.S. customers for its custom-made helicopter bearings. However, SNFA did sell approximately $1 million worth of bearings for airplanes and fixed-wing aircraft, different from the model and type found in plaintiff’s helicopter, to a company located in Rockford, IL. Furthermore, AAC, the wholly owned subsidiary of Agusta, is located in Pennsylvania and distributes helicopters and component parts internationally and in the United States. In the 10 years leading up to this suit, five Agusta helicopters were sold to customers located in Illinois.

Defendant SNFA claimed that:

  • The court cannot establish the requisite “minimum contacts” with Illinois
  • The actions of Agusta and AAC are irrelevant for purposes of determining the stream-of-commerce theory
  • The relationship with the Rockford, IL, distributor cannot establish minimum contacts because plaintiff’s claims did not “arise from” or “relate to” defendant’s relationship with the Rockford location, as the parts sold there were not for helicopters, but for other types of aircraft
  • Significant weight must be given to the burden on the defendant when assessing the reasonableness of “stretching the long arm of personal jurisdiction over national borders”

The Decision

The court found that the plaintiff met his burden by establishing that SNFA had the requisite minimum contacts with Illinois. The court determined that Agusta and AAC effectively operated as an American distributor for SNFA’s tail-rotor bearings in the U.S. market, and rejected SNFA’s argument that Agusta’s and AAC’s actions were irrelevant. SNFA custom manufactured the bearings at issue specifically for Agusta, intending its products to be an inseparable part of the marketing plan of Agusta. Consequently, the sole market for SNFA’s bearings would be Agusta or an owner of an Agusta helicopter. The court rejected as too specific SNFA’s argument that plaintiff’s claims did not “arise from” or “relate to” the activities in the Rockford plant. SNFA is in the business of manufacturing custom-made bearings for the aerospace industry, and SNFA cited no authority that would require the court to differentiate between specific product lines within the industry of custom-made bearings. Finally, the court found that, after giving significant weight to the burden on the defendant of litigating in Illinois, exercising jurisdiction in Illinois was reasonable.

Conclusion

In summary, the Illinois Supreme Court in Russell held that the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction in Illinois was proper. The court rejected the traditional two-part test established in Rollins and instead determined that the nonresident defendant’s connection or contact with Illinois was sufficient to satisfy federal and Illinois due process. The court further found that the plaintiff met his burden of showing that defendant had the requisite minimum contacts in Illinois through the sale of defendant’s custom-made bearings by an American distributor. Five helicopters containing the custom-made bearings in question were sold to customers in Illinois, defendant had a business relationship with a company located in Illinois, and while the products sold in that location were not the helicopter bearings in question, the relationship was sufficient to establish minimum contacts. The court also found that it would not be unreasonable to require the defendant to litigate in Illinois.

Future products liability litigation concerning nonresident parties may be impacted by Russell, as more defendants could face personal jurisdiction in Illinois courts through application of the Illinois Long-Arm Statute’s catch-all provision, even if they are not directly in contact with the plaintiff.

Samantha Birch provided research assistance and was a contributing writer for this alert.