As practitioners know, courts may exercise personal jurisdiction where the defendant is essentially “at home” in the jurisdiction (general jurisdiction), or where the suit arises out of or relates to the defendant’s contacts with the forum (specific jurisdiction). Following recent rulings narrowing the circumstances under which courts may exercise general personal jurisdiction, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court held earlier this year that California courts could not exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a drug manufacturer for claims brought by non-resident plaintiffs who claimed injury from ingesting the drug in question outside of California, even though California residents were pursuing identical claims. Six months have passed since the Court released its opinion in Bristol-Myers Squibb, and trial courts have now had the opportunity to apply the Supreme Court’s reasoning in other contexts, including to aviation product liability actions.
In Bristol-Myers Squibb, 600 plaintiffs, 592 of whom lived outside of California, filed suit in that state alleging that the widely used drug Plavix harmed them. There was no dispute that the company had a significant presence in the state. California courts, which applied a “sliding scale” approach, relied on the company’s extensive contacts with the forum to permit the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the non-resident plaintiffs’ claims, despite the fact that there was a “less direct connection between the forum contacts and the [non-resident plaintiffs’] claims.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 opinion, soundly rejected California’s “sliding scale” approach, branding it a “loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.” The fact that California residents claimed to have been harmed by taking Plavix in California was irrelevant to the claims of the out-of-state plaintiffs. Because those non-resident plaintiffs did not claim to have taken Plavix in California or to have sustained any injury from Plavix in the state, the Court held that California could not exercise specific jurisdiction over the company for those claims.
In the six months after Bristol-Myers Squibb, many a motion has been filed and brief written disputing the scope of the Court’s ruling. Was the Court motivated by concerns of overly permissive joinder rules, in which some states allow hundreds of out-of-state plaintiffs to join their claims with the claims of a small handful of resident plaintiffs (the Johnson & Johnson talc cases in St. Louis, Missouri being a notable example)? Or was the Court making a broader point, emphasizing that in any case with a non-resident defendants, courts should take care to ensure that the forum contacts they are examining, no matter how extensive, are tied to the underlying cause of action?
While these questions arise in cases involving various industries, they are of particular importance for aviation products manufacturers. Aircraft components and the aircraft themselves are bought, sold and transported across jurisdictions, often without manufacturers playing any role whatsoever. Hinkle v. Continental Motors, Inc. shows how federal district courts in two states have addressed claims stemming from one aircraft accident in light of Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Hinkle involved the crash of an aircraft manufactured by Cirrus, a Minnesota corporation, sold by a Virginia salesperson to a Florida resident-pilot, which ultimately crashed in South Carolina. The Florida-resident pilot first filed suit in the Middle District of Florida. See __ F. Supp. 3d __, 2017 WL 3333120 (July 21, 2017). Cirrus moved to dismiss for lack of specific jurisdiction. Relying on Bristol-Myers Squibb, the court discounted the fact that Cirrus generally conducts business in Florida. Moreover, although the plaintiffs alleged that Cirrus’s negligent acts resulted in injury to a Florida resident, the court reasoned that plaintiffs did not sustain their injuries until the aircraft crashed in South Carolina. The cause of action did not arise from Cirrus’s Florida activities. So, the court determined that it could not exercise specific jurisdiction over Cirrus.
The Hinkle plaintiffs also filed suit in the District of South Carolina, the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. See 2017 WL 4574794 (Oct. 12, 2017). The injuries occurred in South Carolina, and the plaintiffs alleged that Cirrus maintained authorized service centers in the state. Based on the Supreme Court having placed significant emphasis on the fact that the non-resident plaintiffs’ injuries did not occur in the forum in assessing specific jurisdiction, one might expect the Hinkle plaintiffs to be able to pursue claims against Cirrus in South Carolina because that is where the accident happened. Not so. Quoting Bristol-Myers Squibb, the South Carolina court found dispositive that the plaintiffs’ suit did not arise out of or relate to Cirrus’s contacts with the forum. The court therefore held it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Cirrus.
As the Hinkle cases demonstrate, products manufacturers will likely find greater success in moving to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction following Bristol-Myers Squibb, especially where the injuries occurred outside the forum or where the plaintiff is a non-forum resident. Even if such a motion is denied, and as post-Bristol-Myers Squibb cases develop and discovery disputes inevitably occur, the Supreme Court’s opinion will likely give product-manufacturer defendants persuasive arguments to limit discovery requests that seek information about forum activity that is unrelated to the cause of action. Indeed, forum activity with little to no relationship to the underlying cause of action would simply invite the trial court to apply the exact “loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction” the Supreme Court rejected. So, discovery seeking such information will be susceptible to challenge.