On March 25, 2021, the US Supreme Court ruled that Ford Motor Company is subject to personal jurisdiction in a state lawsuit alleging injuries from a car accident that occurred in the state, even if the car was manufactured and originally sold in another state. In Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, et al, the Court provided additional clarity in determining if the connection between a plaintiff’s claims and a non-resident defendant’s activities in the forum state are close enough to support specific jurisdiction.
Before the Court were two separate Ford cases, one from Montana and one from Minnesota, where in-state plaintiffs claimed injuries from allegedly defective Ford vehicles that were designed, manufactured, and originally sold out of state. Ford, a nonresident of both states, argued it could not be sued in either state because the company’s alleged harmful conduct all occurred elsewhere. The cars at issue were re-sold and re-located by consumers to the respective forum states. Ford argued that there must be a causal link locating jurisdiction only in the states where Ford sold the cars, or where the cars were designed and manufactured. Both states’ supreme courts rejected Ford’s argument, holding that the company’s activities had the needed connection to the plaintiff’s allegations that a defective Ford vehicle caused in-state injuries.
Writing for the Court, Justice Elena Kagan rejected Ford’s “causation-only” approach, holding that the connection between the plaintiffs’ claims and Ford’s activities in the forum state is close enough to support specific jurisdiction. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed its 2017 landmark ruling in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, et al, which held that to be subject to specific jurisdiction, the plaintiff’s claims “must arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts” with the forum. Focusing on the word “or,” the Court explained that the requirement of a “connection” between a plaintiff’s suit and a defendant’s activities extends beyond causality. More than one state can have specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, particularly one that has a “non-causal affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy,” i.e. an accident occurring inside the state and that involves a nonresident defendant’s product.
The impact that the Ford Motor Co. decision will have on pending and future personal jurisdiction disputes is uncertain. But there is little confusion that Bristol-Myers remains the law of the land. As the Court explained, “Bristol-Myers … reinforce[s] all that the Court has said about why Montana’s and Minnesota’s courts may decide these cases.” Distinguishing the two cases, the Court pointed out that personal jurisdiction was not proper in Bristol-Myers because there was no connection between the forum state, the defendant’s activities there, and the plaintiff’s claims. Unlike the present case, in Bristol-Myers the plaintiffs were not residents of the forum state, the products did not malfunction in the forum state, and the injuries did not occur in the forum state. What Ford Motor Co. makes clear is that the place of a plaintiff’s injury and residence can determine whether a forum state can exercise specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, even if the product at issue was designed, manufactured, distributed, and sold in other states. If a state resident is injured by a defendant’s product in the forum state, the state court may entertain the resulting suit regardless of where the product was made or sold.
Justice Samuel Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Amy Coney Barrett recused.