Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, et al.: Has the Test Changed for Specific Personal Jurisdiction Over Corporate Defendants?

On March 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its latest decision on a state court’s exercise of specific personal jurisdiction over a foreign product manufacturer in a product liability action. The case, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, et al., No. 19-369, focused on the connection required between a foreign defendant and the judicial forum to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. In particular, the Court analyzed its previous statement in Bristol-Myers1 that specific jurisdiction requires a plaintiff’s claims “arise out of or relate to a defendant’s contacts” with the forum. The Court rejected Ford’s argument that due process requires a causal link, such that jurisdiction can only be exercised against the company in the state where the vehicle at issue was sold, designed, or manufactured. Instead, it reasoned that when a company systematically cultivates and serves a market for a product in the forum state, and the product malfunctions in that state, there is a strong connection between the defendant, the forum, and the litigation, which permits the exercise of jurisdiction. The Court frames its decision as essentially reiterating its longstanding approach to personal jurisdiction.

Ford Motor Co. involves two separate underlying lawsuits alleging personal injuries caused by Ford automobiles. In the first case, a 1996 Ford Explorer designed by Ford in Michigan, manufactured in Kentucky and purchased in Washington, was involved in an accident in Montana resulting in a fatality. Plaintiff filed suit against Ford in Montana state court, which denied Ford’s challenge to jurisdiction. In the second case, a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria was designed in Michigan, manufactured in Canada, and purchased in North Dakota. The plaintiff sustained personal injuries in an accident involving the Crown Victoria in Minnesota, and filed suit against Ford in Minnesota state court. Ford’s challenge to the Minnesota state court’s jurisdiction was denied as well. The Montana and Minnesota Supreme Courts affirmed the respective decisions rejecting Ford’s jurisdictional argument. Ford petitioned for writs of certiorari.

The record before the Court established that Ford had undertaken extensive business and marketing activities aimed at establishing and promoting the sale and maintenance of each of the Ford vehicles in Montana and Minnesota. Those activities included targeted print, television, and radio advertising campaigns, promotion and sales of new and certified used versions of the vehicles, promotion and sale of replacement parts for the vehicles, extensive dealer networks, and service programs.

Ford admitted that it sought to serve the Montana and Minnesota markets, that is, that it had purposefully availed itself of conducting activities in these two states. Ford nevertheless argued that these activities were insufficiently connected to the plaintiffs’ claims to justify the state’s exercise of jurisdiction. Ford contended that there must be a causal link between its conduct and the plaintiffs’ claims—consisting of either design, manufacture, or sale of the subject vehicle—to meet the requirements of due process. Because Ford had not designed, manufactured, or sold the subject vehicles in these states, it argued, it could not be made to answer the lawsuits in either court.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In rejecting Ford’s argument, the Court emphasized that the jurisdictional inquiry is not a “causation only” approach, as Ford would have it. Rather, meeting the second half of the Bristol Meyers standard (i.e., that plaintiff’s claims must relate to the defendant’s forum contacts) can also provide a basis for jurisdiction. The Court was careful to explain that even though a causal relationship was not necessary, the “relate to” prong incorporates real limits to jurisdiction. Ford has substantial contacts in Montana and Minnesota to encourage residents to become lifelong Ford customers, including advertisements in a variety of media, dealerships, servicers, and replacement part suppliers. As Ford had systematically served the markets in the States for the same vehicles that the plaintiffs alleged had malfunctioned and injured them in those States, there was a strong relationship among the forum, the defendant, and the litigation: the “essential foundation” of specific jurisdiction.

Ford Motor Co. essentially reaffirms that a plaintiff’s claims need not arise from a defendant’s contacts with the forum in a strict, causal sense, if it can also be shown that there is substantial non-causal “affiliation” between the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s activities in the forum. But the Court’s opinion does present a potential risk to national and global manufacturers. As noted in Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, the Court has separated the standard into two distinct categories. A plaintiff’s claims may satisfy due process for specific jurisdiction if they “arise from” the defendant’s contacts, on one hand, or if they “relate to” the defendant’s contacts, on the other. The interpretation of the breadth of the “relate to” category complicates the analysis and may result in an expansion of jurisdiction over foreign defendants.

[James S. Coons is a Partner and Kenneth A. Burden is a Senior Associate at Ansa Assuncao LLP, which was counsel of record for the Petitioner in one of the Supreme Court’s prior pronouncements on specific jurisdiction, J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873 (2011).]
1 Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Super. Ct. of Cal., San Francisco Cty., 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017).

James Coons is a Partner in our New Jersey office.