Norman Williams and Diane Howe v. Romarm, SA and Does Company Distributors, No. 13-7022 (D.C. Cir. July 1, 2014) [click for opinion]

Plaintiffs brought a wrongful death action following the murder of their son with an assault rifle manufactured by Defendant. The district court granted Defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and Plaintiffs appealed.

For a court to have personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, the defendant must “have certain minimum contacts with [the forum] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” One basis for personal jurisdiction is premised on a defendant’s participation in the “stream of commerce,” meaning “the movement of goods from manufacturers through distributors to consumers.” Uncertainty surrounds the concept and the D.C. Circuit acknowledged there are three interpretations of the “stream of commerce” theory: 1) placing a product into a stream of commerce is sufficient; 2) additional conduct by defendant showing intent or purpose to serve the market of the forum state is required; or 3) the volume, value, and hazardous character of the product are determinative. The court did not, however, take a position on which theory should prevail.

Instead, the court relied on Justice Breyer’s concurrence in J. McIntyre, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), which asserted that a forum state cannot assert personal jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer based on a distributor’s single sale in the forum state, the manufacturer’s desire that the distributor pursue customers throughout the U.S., and the manufacturer’s business-related contacts with various states other than the forum state. A plaintiff must show more than a single isolated sale by a distributor to a customer in a forum state, such as regular business in the forum state or additional efforts directed toward the forum state. Here, Plaintiffs argued that Defendant should have seen that its products would crossover into forums where they were prohibited, including the District of Columbia. However, the D.C. Circuit was unpersuaded, stating that Plaintiffs did not show facts that Defendant targeted D.C. or its customers. In fact, there was not even the isolated sale that the Nicastro court found insufficient. Therefore, the appeals court held that due process did not permit the district court to exercise its jurisdiction over Appellee.

Plaintiffs also claimed that their efforts to show personal jurisdiction were stymied because the district court did not permit limited discovery. The appeals court, pointing to the fact that Plaintiffs' request did not relate to any specific connections between Defendant and D.C., found no error. Because Plaintiffs failed to allege conduct by Defendant purposefully directed to D.C., and its discovery requests could not supply the missing element, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case for lack of personal jurisdiction.