Ford to Ask Supreme Court to Clarify Where It Can Be Sued

January 20, 2020 Updated: January 20, 2020
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WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court has decided to hear Ford Motor Company’s challenge to Minnesota and Montana court decisions that allowed personal injury lawsuits regarding cars sold out of state to proceed.

The case is potentially important because the Supreme Court could clarify where personal injury plaintiffs are supposed to sue automakers when claiming damages for defective automobile design or other causes. Courts throughout the nation have issued a plethora of contradictory rulings on the issue, which business advocates say encourages plaintiffs to go forum-shopping.

The high court granted certiorari Jan. 17 in two cases that will be heard together at some point in the coming months. They are Ford Motor Company v. Bandemer and Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court.

Generally, conventional legal thinking has been that plaintiffs injured in vehicles can’t sue the automaker if the states in which they were injured have a weak business connection to the automaker. The defendant here, Ford, may have sold cars through branded dealerships in the states but those dealerships had no connection to the vehicles in which the plaintiffs were injured, according to Ford.

Michigan-based Ford, which is incorporated in Delaware, tried to have both cases thrown out for lack of jurisdiction. The company argued that because neither of the vehicles involved was made or sold in Minnesota or Montana those states’ respective courts shouldn’t have jurisdiction in the two lawsuits. Courts in both states disagreed and their decisions were upheld by divided state Supreme Courts.

In 2015, Minnesota resident Adam Bandemer was a passenger in a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria driven on a Minnesota road. The driver rear-ended a snow plow, and the car ended up in a ditch. Bandemer suffered a brain injury. He claims the airbag failed to deploy because of a defect and sued alleging product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty claims against Ford.

Montana resident Markkaya Jean Gullett, a married mother of two, had been driving a 1996 Ford Explorer on a Montana highway in 2015 when the tread on one of her tires separated. She lost control and died at the scene of the accident. The executor of her estate sued, advancing design-defect, failure-to-warn, and negligence claims against the company.

Ford argues that those state court systems shouldn’t have jurisdiction because the connections between the company’s activities in those states and the plaintiffs’ claims are too far removed. The argument has carried the day in other cases, including in lawsuits against Ford that have been recently tossed, but other state courts have gone in the opposite direction in deciding whether they have jurisdiction over claims made against an out-of-state defendant.

“There is a deep conflict among federal and state courts over what connection due process requires between a plaintiff’s claims and a non-resident defendant’s forum contacts for a court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction,” Ford stated in court documents.

A plaintiff’s claim ought to “have at least some causal connection to some act the defendant took in, or aimed at, the forum” in which the lawsuit is being heard, the company stated in court documents. The justices, Ford said, should “rule that specific jurisdiction requires a causal connection” between the two.

The Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows a state court to exercise jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant only when the plaintiff’s claims “arise out of or relate to” the defendant’s forum activities, Ford stated, citing Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, a 1985 Supreme Court decision.

Bandemer rejected that argument in his court petition, saying, “When a manufacturer like Ford deliberately cultivates a state as a market for its cars, a claim that one of those cars has injured a resident in the state is sufficiently related to those contacts to support the exercise of personal jurisdiction.”