I. Introduction

In its first opportunity to apply the United States Supreme Court’s latest decision on the subject of specific personal jurisdiction, J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro,1 the Illinois Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that will limit the circumstances in which foreign product manufacturers may successfully dismiss cases on personal jurisdiction grounds in Illinois. The case, Russell v. SNFA,2 arose from a fatal helicopter crash in Illinois and involved a suit against several product manufacturers, including a foreign component part manufacturer with no direct sales to the United States. After analyzing applicable U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Illinois’s highest court found that the foreign component part manufacturer had sufficient minimum contacts with Illinois to satisfy specific jurisdiction requirements, despite the fact that the defendant made no direct sales in Illinois and lacked knowledge that its component parts were marketed or sold in Illinois.

II. Background

In January 2003, the pilot of an Agusta helicopter died as a result of a crash in Illinois.3 The helicopter, which was manufactured by Agusta S.p.A. in Italy, contained tail-rotor bearings that were custom-made for that particular model by SNFA, a French manufacturer.4 The pilot’s estate sued four defendants in Cook County, Illinois, alleging that the helicopter crashed due to a failure of one of its tail-rotor bearings. The defendants included: (1) SNFA, the French company that custom-made the tail-rotor bearings; (2) Agusta S.p.A (Agusta), the Italian manufacturer of the helicopter; (3) Agusta Aerospace Corporation (AAC), the Pennsylvania-based distributor and wholly-owned subsidiary of Agusta that sold the replacement bearings manufactured by SNFA to Metro Aviation; and (4) Metro Aviation, the Louisiana company that sold the helicopter to plaintiff’s employer.5

SNFA moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s suit for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that the complaint contained no allegations of wrongdoing in Illinois, and that it did not have sufficient minimum contacts with Illinois for the court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction under Illinois’s long-arm statute.6 In particular, SNFA argued that it had no offices, assets, employees, or property in Illinois and was not licensed to do business in Illinois.7 Further, SNFA did not have any direct U.S. customers for its custom-made tail-rotor bearings.8 Instead, all sales of the tail-rotor bearings in the U.S. were made through AAC, Agusta’s U.S. distributor.9

The trial court granted SNFA’s motion, concluding that it lacked sufficient minimum contacts in Illinois, but the appellate court reversed, finding that because SNFA custom-made its bearings for Agusta, it intended to benefit from Agusta’s marketing and distributions systems and it had ample reason to know and expect that its bearing would be marketed in any and all states, including Illinois.10 The Illinois Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s decision and directed it to reconsider in light of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing personal jurisdiction issues, Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown11 and J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.12 On remand, the appellate court again reversed the lower court’s dismissal, this time holding that jurisdiction was appropriate under McIntyre. SNFA appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.13

III. Analysis

A. U.S. Supreme Court Personal Jurisdiction Precedent

A 5-1 majority of the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision. The Court noted that specific jurisdiction requires only that the defendant “purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and that the cause of action arose out of or relates to the defendant’s contacts with the forum state”14 and held that SNFA’s contacts with Illinois were sufficient to satisfy that standard.15

In reaching its decision, the Russell court engaged in an extensive analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s personal jurisdiction precedent. The Illinois Supreme Court first reiterated that the forum state may exercise personal jurisdiction over a “nonresident defendant ‘that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased . . . in the forum State,’” a principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson.16 The Russell court then analyzed the two main stream of commerce theories set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Asahi Metal Industry Co., Ltd. v. Superior Court of California, Solano County (Cheng Shin Rubber Industrial Co., Ltd., Real Party in Interest):17 (1) Justice O’Connor’s narrow stream of commerce theory, which required delivery of a product into the stream of commerce and a showing that the defendant purposefully directed its product at the forum through additional conduct;18 and (2) Justice Brennan’s broader theory, under which placement of a product into the stream of commerce, without additional conduct, justified specific jurisdiction as long as the defendant was aware that the final product was being marketed in the forum state.19

The Russell court then addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent personal jurisdiction decision, McIntyre v. Nicastro. In McIntyre, the U.S. Supreme Court held that New Jersey courts could not exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a foreign product manufacturer who used an independent Ohio-based distributor to sell its products in the United States where the defendant lacked control over its American distributor and did not market its products in, or ship to, New Jersey.20 Writing for a plurality, Justice Kennedy endorsed Justice O’Connor’s narrow stream of commerce theory, noting that a “defendant’s transmission of goods permits the exercise of jurisdiction only where the defendant can be said to have targeted the forum.”21 According to the plurality, a defendant’s prediction that its goods will reach the forum state is not enough to establish jurisdiction.22 Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion rejected the plurality’s reasoning but did not offer a distinct stream of commerce standard, instead arguing that the case could be decided under existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.23 In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg argued that by engaging an American-based distributor, the defendant purposefully availed itself of the entire U.S. market and, thus, was subject to jurisdiction in each state in which the distributor sold its products.24

The Russell court gleaned three main points from McIntyre. First, the Russell court held that the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously endorsed the continued validity of the stream of commerce theory established in World-Wide Volkswagen, though it acknowledged that the theory’s application remains unsettled.25 Second, the Russell court noted that, in deciding McIntyre, six justices had rejected the expansive stream of commerce theory that had been adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court. As such, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that courts should not exercise specific jurisdiction based on a single sale in a forum, “even when a manufacturer ‘knows or reasonably should know that its products are distributed through a nationwide distribution system that might lead to those products being sold in any of the fifty states.’”26 Significantly, the Russell court emphasized that after Asahi, at a minimum, the foreign defendant must be aware that the final product is being marketed in the forum state.27 Lastly, the Russell court noted that a minority of the U.S. Supreme Court would implement a broader stream of commerce theory that would permit courts to adapt to modern globalized commerce and focus on “notions of fair play and substantial justice.”28

B. Russell Court Finds Sufficient Minimum Contacts

Concluding that there was substantial disagreement stemming from McIntyre’s plurality and concurring opinions, the Russell court refused to adopt either the broad or narrow version of the stream of commerce theory without more definitive guidance from a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.29 The Illinois Supreme Court held that it did not need to reach the issue because SNFA was subject to specific jurisdiction under either stream of commerce theory.30

Specifically, the Russell court held that, through Agusta’s sales of SNFA’s products in Illinois, SNFA had purposefully availed itself of the forum, even though SNFA denied any knowledge that AAC was distributing tail-rotor bearings in Illinois.31 The Illinois Supreme Court interpreted McIntyre to permit jurisdiction under a stream of commerce theory in these circumstances because SNFA had custom-made its product for use by Agusta, which (along with AAC) the Court characterized as SNFA’s distributor and sole conduit through which SNFA’s products reached consumers, including consumers in the U.S. and Illinois.32 The Court concluded that SNFA “intended its products to be an inseparable part of the marketing plan of Agusta,”33 and noted that, over ten years, five Agusta helicopters and 2,198 SNFA parts had been sold to entities in Illinois.34

The Russell court also held that, to the extent that U.S. Supreme Court precedent could be read to require additional conduct beyond mere sales through Agusta and AAC, jurisdiction was appropriate because SNFA had a business relationship with Hamilton Sundstrand, a California aerospace manufacturer with an office in Rockford, Illinois.35 The Court acknowledged that SNFA’s relationship with Hamilton Sundstrand concerned a product line of airplane bearings which was distinct from the helicopter bearings at issue in the Russell crash.36 Moreover, SNFA’s interactions with Hamilton Sundstrand in Illinois, as described by the Court, were relatively minor, and included listing Illinois as the “purchasing location” on invoices and a few meetings to discuss potential sales.37 SNFA made no sales to Hamilton Sundstrand in Illinois; the products were sold and shipped to Hamilton Sundstrand in California.38 Nonetheless, the Court concluded that by engaging a business entity located in Illinois, SNFA “benefitted from Illinois’ system of laws, infrastructure, and business climate.”39 The Court rejected SNFA’s argument that its relationship with Hamilton Sundstrand did not “arise from” or “relate to” the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff’s claims involved a distinct product line, characterizing the “arising out of” standard as lenient and flexible.40 Thus, finding that sufficient minimum contacts existed and that it was reasonable to require SNFA to litigate in Illinois, the Russell court held that Illinois’s exercise of specific personal jurisdiction over SNFA satisfied federal and Illinois due process standards.41

The opinion prompted a strong dissent from Justice Garman. She emphasized the expansive nature of the Russell court’s jurisdictional theory, as the Court had found jurisdiction over a party that had no knowledge that its products were being sold in Illinois. She argued that the majority’s reasoning conflicted both with long-standing U.S. Supreme Court precedent and with prior decisions of the Illinois Supreme Court, which require, at a minimum, an awareness that the product will be marketed in the forum state. In addition, the dissent disagreed with the majority’s view that SNFA’s relationship with Hamilton Sundstrand served as “additional conduct” to establish sufficient minimum contacts under McIntyre or Asahi. As the dissent explained, under the majority’s holding, “a foreign defendant can now be haled into court in Illinois for even the most fleeting and inconsequential business contact with this state.”42

IV. Russell’s Implications for Product Manufacturers

The Russell decision makes it more difficult for product manufacturers to obtain dismissals in Illinois on personal jurisdiction grounds. The decision suggests that any foreign manufacturer selling products through a distributor may be subject to jurisdiction in Illinois as long as some sales are made in Illinois – even if the foreign defendant had no knowledge of those sales and no knowledge that the product was being marketed in Illinois. To the extent that foreign manufacturers currently conduct business in the U.S. through a distributor for the purpose of avoiding personal jurisdiction, that arrangement may no longer provide adequate protection.

Russell also may impact other courts’ interpretation and application of McIntyre. As a decision of a state’s highest court, courts in other jurisdictions may look to Russell as a guidepost for interpreting both the stream of commerce theory and the “arising out of” standard of specific personal jurisdiction. Accordingly, the implications of the Russell decision extend beyond Illinois, as it may increase the likelihood that other courts exercise personal jurisdiction over foreign manufacturers whose products are sold through U.S. distributors.