Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court

No. 19-368 & 19-369 - Argued October 7, 2020
At Issue

May a state court, consistent with the Due Process Clause, exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant when none of the defendant’s contacts with that state caused the plaintiff’s claims?

  • Sean Marotta, for the petitioner
  • Deepak Gupta, for the respondents
Background and Case Commentary

The Supreme Court consolidated two cases brought against Ford Motor Co. (“Ford”) involving different accidents—one in Montana, the other in Minnesota.  Plaintiffs asserted claims sounding in tort against Ford. The issue was whether the “arise out of or relate to” requirement for specific personal jurisdiction “is met when none of the defendant’s forum contacts caused the plaintiff’s claims, such that the plaintiff’s claims would be the same even if the defendant had no forum contacts.

We have focused on two exchanges.  The first, between Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Mr. Marotta, counsel for Ford, touched on general as well as specific personal jurisdiction.  We believe the Court needs to address the relationship between the two given the Court’s decisions since 2011 restricting the availability of general jurisdiction.  See, e.g., Goodyear Dunlop Tire Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915 (2011).

Marotta gave a solid answer in response to the question.  We have elaborated on his reply for two reasons: first, to make it clear that Ford was not asking the Court to change any aspect of the current law regarding general jurisdiction; and second, to reiterate, as Marotta did, that there were a number of states where courts would have specific jurisdiction over Ford.

The second exchange, between Justice Samuel Alito and Mr. Gupta, counsel for respondents, came in response to a question whether existing case law would be sufficient to permit the Court to decide the case.  Gupta, reasonably, hedged a bit in his answer.  We would have emphasized the fact-specific nature of personal jurisdiction cases.  Our answer underscores the difficulty for the Court of providing more specific guidance for deciding future cases.

Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court on Oyez:

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Justice Sotomayor to Petitioner (15:56): Counsel, . . . in essence, what you are saying is that Ford can only be liable in its home state . . . because only there, presumably, under general jurisdiction, and maybe even not even there, because your but-for requirement would say wherever it manufactures, produces, if it didn't sell the car to the customer, there's no proximate causation, correct?

Rodger Citron and Laura Dooley: We would respectfully disagree. When a state’s courts have general personal jurisdiction over a corporation, it may be sued there on any claim. Neither Goodyear nor any of the Court’s subsequent decisions changed that. The plaintiffs here did not assert that courts in the states where plaintiffs brought suit had general personal jurisdiction over Ford. They never claimed that Ford had such pervasive contacts in Minnesota or Montana as to be essentially at home in either state.

Nonetheless, under our proximate cause standard, a number of states would still have specific personal jurisdiction over Ford in these cases.

Let's be clear about what our proposed causation standard is. . . . It's that the operative facts of the controversy arise from the defendant's contacts with the state such that the defendant's in-state conduct forms an important or at least a material element of proof in the plaintiff's case. So the place where the vehicle was designed can be one operative fact of plaintiff’s claim that would support specific personal jurisdiction in the case. We would also find proximate causation in the state where the vehicle was built.

Justice Alito to Respondents (42:17): No, it's an antiquated -- it's an antiquated question. It's the 1945 International Shoe traveling salesman question. So we are in -- we could perhaps decide this case within the contours of our existing cases because there's nothing particularly 21st century about what happened here.

But we're in a strange situation where we are not purporting to apply what due process was understood to mean when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. We are applying a 1945 standard adopted by the Court when it put on its fair play hat and said this is fair play as we understand the world in 1945.

But the world in 2020 is completely different. So you may just say, well, decide this on the basis of your -- your existing case law and not propose anything grander, but, if you have a solution to the bigger problems that have been framed by some of the questions, it would be interesting to hear it.

Rodger Citron and Laura Dooley: It’s a very fair point, Justice Alito. As we read the existing case law, we see the Court deciding the cases on the particular facts before it and setting out what it intends to be guidance for future cases. Regarding this latter task, the Court can do only so much because the law of personal jurisdiction evolves in common-law fashion, on a case-by-case basis.

World-Wide Volkswagen led to Asahi, which led to Nicastro. More than three decades later, the Court has not been able to arrive at a consensus on a stream-of-commerce rule. In large part, this is because, as Justice Breyer suggested in a Nicastro concurrence that you joined, it is very difficult for the Court to announce a rule of broad applicability. So, we would urge the Court to decide this case in accordance with existing case law, which means affirming the judgments below.