Disputes over personal jurisdiction have become more and more commonplace in product liability cases in recent years. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several seminal decisions addressing personal jurisdiction over the past decade, there is a specific jurisdiction issue in relation to which it has not rendered a decision but is expected to do so shortly. This issue is the interpretation of the oft-repeated language in the case law that plaintiff’s injury must “arise out of or relate to” defendant’s in state conduct for it to meet federal due process requirements. SCOTUS heard oral argument in two consolidated cases, Ford v. Bandemer and Ford v. Montana Eight Judicial District on October 7, 2020. Ford’s argument in both cases was that because the plaintiffs had each purchased their Ford vehicles second hand in another state, Ford’s in-state activities in Montana and Minnesota were irrelevant because the respective plaintiff’s injuries did not arise from those in-state activities. SCOTUS is likely to issue its decision soon on this matter.
In the meantime, our firm handled an almost identical set of facts in a benzene exposure case where our client (now deceased) worked with a product in New York, was diagnosed with cancer in New York, lived in New York, and died in New York. In our case, Brenntag Northeast, Inc. (“BNE”) supplied chemicals to a co-defendant, CRC Industries, Inc. in Pennsylvania. CRC’s product, incorporating BNE’s ingredients, was then sold in New York. BNE had a distribution facility in New York distributing chemicals to New York customers but argued that because our client’s injuries did not arise out of BNE’s in-state activities, it did not meet the Due Process requirement of the 14th Amendment. The Fourth Department disagreed issuing a unanimous decision on January 14, 2021. The Court noted that the Plaintiff met the requirements of CPLR 302 (a)(3) and that it is rare for a case to meet New York’s long arm statute requirements and still offend constitutional law. The Court further noted that BNE failed to contend that it did not have minimum contacts with New York. The SCOTUS decision in the Ford cases could impact this decision but for now at least, the Fourth Department got it right.
For plaintiffs who are injured in their home state as a result of using products that may have originated in other states or countries, they should be entitled to pursue one action against all parties in a forum that is convenient to them. Forcing plaintiffs to file separate suits for the same injuries in different jurisdictions is inefficient and unfair and we are hopeful SCOTUS reaches the right conclusion on this important matter.