SCOTUS Takes On Forum Shopping With Railroad Injury Case

(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether a state court has jurisdiction when plaintiffs and defendants aren’t residents of the state and the activity that prompted the lawsuit didn’t occur in the state.

“The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a Montana Supreme Court decision that ignores fundamental due-process limits on the ability of state courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants,” petitioners in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell said in a statement.

“The court should take this opportunity to support bedrock due process,” Cory Andrews, the senior litigation attorney for the Washington Legal Foundation – one of BNSF’s supporters – said in a statement.

BNSF, a Delaware corporation whose principal place of business is Texas, is often sued in Montana by people who don’t reside in the Treasure State over injuries and events that occurred elsewhere. Yet the Montana Supreme Court ruled in May 2016 that since BNSF conducts business in Montana – it operates trains on more than 2,000 miles of railroad track, employs 2,000 Montanans and invested $470 million in Montana in the past four years – state courts have general jurisdiction. In addition, the state’s justices ruled state courts have personal jurisdiction over BNSF under the Federal Employers Liability Act, noting the state constitution reads that “courts of justice shall be open to every person.”

“If Montana courts have personal jurisdiction over BNSF for FELA cases brought by Montana residents, Montana courts necessarily must have personal jurisdiction over BNSF for FELA cases brought by nonresidents,” Justice James Shea wrote in the 6-1 decision.

BNSF argues in court documents, however, that U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2011 and 2014 placed a firm constitutional check on where businesses can be subject to liability when their products or operations wrongfully cause injury. BNSF currently has 33 lawsuits pending in Montana.

“The court concluded that, as a matter of due process, a state can exercise general personal jurisdiction over a business only where it is ‘at home,’ largely its place of incorporation or principal place of business,” attorney Phil Goldberg wrote in an amicus brief on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“The Supreme Court has held that this practice of forum shopping is not constitutional,” Goldberg added in an email. “Montana taxpayers should not have to have their judicial resources or their own jury time spent on cases having nothing to do with Montana.”

Joining the manufacturers’ group in filing amicus briefs are the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the Association of American Railroads, and the Washington Legal Foundation. Attorneys for those organizations declined to comment on the record, but instead pointed toward their legal documents for statements.

The U.S. Supreme Court case comes after BNSF was sued by Robert Nelson, and by the estate of Brent Tyrrell, in two separate actions in Yellowstone County District Court. The judge presiding over Nelson’s case granted BNSF’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, but a different judge denied the motion in the Tyrrell case

Nelson was a North Dakota resident and sued BNSF for knee injuries he allegedly sustained while employed as a BNSF fuel truck driver. His complaint never said that he worked or was injured in Montana.

Tyrrell’s family claimed Tyrrell was exposed to various carcinogenic chemicals that caused him to develop kidney cancer, leading to his death. The complaint didn’t say Tyrrell ever worked for BNSF in Montana, or that any of the chemical exposures occurred in Montana.

The nation’s high court took up the case without further comment, per its custom.