Accident Victims Urge Supreme Court Not to Narrow Ability to Sue Automaker

Accident Victims Urge Supreme Court Not to Narrow Ability to Sue Automaker
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Washington on Sept. 19, 2020. (Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

A personal injury lawyer urged a seemingly sympathetic Supreme Court to uphold state court rulings that allowed personal injury lawsuits regarding cars sold out of state to move forward against automaker Ford Motor Co.

Eight, instead of the usual nine, justices heard oral arguments telephonically Oct. 7 in the case known as Ford Motor Co. v. Montana 8th Judicial District Court, which was consolidated and heard with Ford Motor Co. v. Bandemer.

The U.S. Supreme Court is at eight members because of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18. Confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, whom President Donald Trump nominated to replace her, begin Oct. 12.

Courts across the United States have issued contradictory rulings on the issue, which business advocates say encourages plaintiffs to go forum-shopping, or seeking the court they believe will be most likely to rule in their favor.

The 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 petitioner here, Ford, may have sold cars through branded dealerships in the states, but the automaker says those dealerships had no connection to the vehicles in which the plaintiffs were injured.

Michigan-based Ford, 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 what lawyers call personal jurisdiction in the two lawsuits. Courts in both states disagreed, and their decisions were upheld by divided state supreme courts.

Personal jurisdiction refers to a court’s authority over the parties to a lawsuit, as opposed to subject-matter jurisdiction, which refers to authority over the law and facts involved in the legal proceedings. In American law, a corporation like Ford is considered a “person.”

In 2015, Adam Bandemer was a passenger in a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria driven on a Minnesota road. The driver rear-ended a snowplow, and Bandemer suffered a brain injury. He claims a defective airbag failed to deploy and sued Ford, alleging product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.

Markkaya Jean Gullett was driving a 1996 Ford Explorer on a Montana highway in 2015 when the tread on one of her tires separated. She lost control and was killed. Her estate sued, advancing design-defect, failure-to-warn, and negligence claims against Ford.

Ford argues those states’ courts 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 recently been dismissed, but other state courts have gone the other way, deciding they have jurisdiction over claims made against an out-of-state defendant.

During oral arguments, Deepak Gupta, attorney for the injured parties, said Ford was overreaching.

“This court has never read the Due Process Clause to deprive the states of their sovereign powers to try cases in their own courts and protect people injured within their own borders on anything like the facts presented here,” Gupta said.

Ford is asking the court “to extinguish the state’s traditional authority,” a move that “would introduce tremendous uncertainty and generate needless litigation.”

“Ford’s standard would create practical problems without any countervailing benefits of fairness or federalism demanded by the Due Process Clause,” Gupta said.

“The plaintiffs here aren’t forum shopping. They sued where everyone would expect them to sue.”

Justice Clarence Thomas told Ford attorney Sean Marotta his argument was “a bit confusing to me.”

“Ford in the United States is fairly ubiquitous,” the justice said.

Thomas asked whether a motorist in Bristol, Tennessee, who buys a Ford vehicle in Roanoke, Virginia, only to have it somehow fail in Tennessee, should be able to sue in Tennessee.

“I’m just trying to figure out the sense of this,” he said.

Marotta replied: “If you bought it from ... just a private party, no. If you purchased it new from your local Ford dealer, yes.”

Along similar lines, Justice Elena Kagan seemed to suggest that the injured party in Montana ought to be able to sue in Montana.

“Ford sells cars, services cars, resells cars, advertises cars in Montana,” she said.

In a back-and-forth with Justice Stephen Breyer, Marotta said it would be unfair to Ford to make it “subject to the rulings of Montana and Minnesota judges ... the verdicts of Montana and Minnesota juries ... [or] the Montana and Minnesota Rules of Evidence and Procedure.”

“And even if you don’t think that’s a significant burden on Ford because Ford’s a big company, the rule you’ll announce in this case applies to much smaller manufacturers,” Marotta said.

“It applies to regional manufacturers who are perhaps thinking about expanding into a new market. So, in crafting the rule today, you shouldn’t just look at the Fords of the world. Consider the smaller manufacturers who don’t have ... a national presence.”