On July 12, 2018, an appellate court in Illinois issued a long-awaited decision allowing the dismissal of an out-of-state defendant for lack of personal jurisdiction. Ruling on due process grounds, the court’s decision flies in the face of the common practice that allows plaintiffs in asbestos-related lawsuits to force out-of-state defendants into Illinois state court, including to the nation’s busiest asbestos docket, Madison County.
In Jeffs v. Ford Motor Company, plaintiff brought suit in Madison County, Illinois alleging that her deceased husband was exposed to asbestos-containing products in Michigan while working at Ford. The trial court denied Ford’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and instead found that Ford was subject to general, or all-purpose, jurisdiction in Illinois based on Ford’s substantial business dealings within the state. For an in-depth discussion of the trial court’s decision, please see our related post here.
In reversing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court considered both plaintiff and defendant’s interpretations of Daimler AG v. Bauman, but ultimately allowed much of their opinion to rest on Ford’s reliance on Aspen American Insurance Co. v. Interstate Warehousing, which the court found mandates a narrow definition of general jurisdiction under Illinois law. (For a discussion of Aspen, please see our related post here.) The appellate court found Aspen controlling when rejecting plaintiff’s argument that maintaining an agent to receive service of process—a condition of doing business in Illinois as an out-of-state corporation—was equivalent to consent to general jurisdiction. It further held that any argument equating registration with consent would similarly fail.
The appellate court next considered the Illinois long-arm statute’s ability to hale Ford into Illinois state court without case-specific contacts. The Illinois long-arm is limited only by the requirement that it comport with due process standards under the Illinois Constitution and United States Constitution. Under Aspen, because Ford is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in Michigan, it may only be subject to general jurisdiction in Illinois in “exceptional circumstances.” Consistent with Daimler and Aspen, a defendant may only be subject to general jurisdiction when their contacts are so continuous and systematic that the defendant is “essentially at home in the forum.” Looking to Ford’s contacts in Illinois: 7.5% of global employees, 5% of independent dealerships, 4.5% of sales, the court determined that despite Ford’s major business contacts, it could not be said to be essentially at home in Illinois.
Despite the fact that this opinion is unpublished and unable to be cited as precedent, its potential effect on future rulings should not be undervalued. Given that a once typical ruling in Illinois trial courts has now been reversed, at least in the Fifth District, it would seem likely that trial courts will now rule in favor of defendants asserting lack of personal jurisdiction in circumstances similar to those in Jeffs. Another interesting aspect will be how this ruling will affect filings in Madison County. All of this said, the presence of a potentially viable defense may not mean the end of litigation for a defendant asserting it. There remains the potential that plaintiffs may come to the individual defendant’s home state to sue them there. In some circumstances, this may still be a favorable outcome. In others, it may be best to remain in, for example, Madison County, for a variety of reasons. This is a strategic decision that should be carefully considered based on the facts of each individual case. Nonetheless, the Jeffs decision marks a clear procedural victory for out-of-state defendants in asbestos litigation involving non-Illinois exposures.