The Illinois Supreme Court has determined that the French manufacturer of a custom tail-rotor bearing for a helicopter involved in a crash is subject to personal jurisdiction in the state and must answer to product liability claims filed against it. Russell v. SNFA, No. 113909 (Ill., decided April 18, 2013). Noting the confusion engendered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s plurality decision in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), the court decided that its outcome was consistent with Illinois precedent requiring “at a minimum, that the alien defendant is ‘aware that the final product is being marketed in the forum State.’”
According to the court, other defendants, including the helicopter’s manufacturer, “effectively operated as an American distributor for [the French manufacturer’s] tail-rotor bearings in the United States market.” Without these other defendants, the French manufacturer “would have no market or corresponding sales of those bearings anywhere in the United States.” And during a seven-year period, between 2000 and 2007, the helicopter manufacturer “sold approximately 2,198 parts manufactured by [the French company] to entities located in Illinois.” Because sales of the French defendant’s products in Illinois were not isolated, the court found that it had “engaged in Illinois-specific activity to establish minimum contacts with Illinois [even] under” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s more demanding and narrow stream-of-commerce theory, espoused in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987). The court refused, however, to find that the J. McIntyre plurality adopted that narrow theory.
The court bolstered its conclusion by referring to other business relationships the French company had in the state involving invoicing for multiple shipments of the company’s aircraft bearings to other states. The majority decided that, for purposes of its jurisdictional inquiry, the helicopter bearings and airplane bearings should be considered a single type of product, that is, “custom-made bearings for the aerospace industry,” thus bringing the French company’s business relationship with an Illinois company for custom-made bearings used in airplanes within the court’s stream-of-commerce analysis. The court also concluded that it was reasonable to require the French manufacturer to litigate in Illinois.
A dissenting justice argued that the majority had mischaracterized Justice Stephen Breyer’s concurrence in McIntyre and that the court should distinguish between component part manufacturers and finished product manufacturers in a “distributor/ stream of commerce analysis.” This justice also objected to the majority’s inclusion of business activity involving airplane bearings into its analysis, stating, “These are not the same types of bearings, helicopter bearings, that were sold to Agusta and that were in the helicopter that crashed and gave rise to the instant litigation.”