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Detroit Isn’t the Only Place to Sue Ford, High Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court balked Thursday at Ford’s claim that jurisdiction should doom a pair of lawsuits over car crashes that left one driver dead and a passenger with serious brain injuries.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court balked Thursday at Ford’s claim that jurisdiction should doom a pair of lawsuits over car crashes that left one driver dead and a passenger with serious brain injuries.

“When a company like Ford serves a market for a product in a state and that product causes injury in the state to one of its residents, the state’s courts may entertain the resulting suit,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court, which was mostly unanimous.

Ford asserted that jurisdiction was improper since the cars crashed in states where neither had been sold, designed or manufactured.

In the case where the driver died, Markkaya Jean Gullet had been driving a 1996 Ford Explorer that was put together in Kentucky, sold in Washington and arrived in Montana after changing hands multiple times.

The other case involved a 1994 Crown Victoria designed in Michigan, assembled in Canada, sold in North Dakota and then ridden for the last time in Minnesota. After it landed in a ditch following a crash, the airbag failed to deploy and Adam Bandemer sustained serious brain damage.

Both the Montana and Minnesota Supreme Courts rejected Ford’s jurisdiction argument, and Thursday’s ruling out of Washington affirms.  

Deepak Gupta, an attorney representing Gullett’s family, wrote in an email Thursday the court’s decision was a big win for accessible justice and, “frankly, for common sense.” 

“For decades, corporations have been trying to block the courthouse doors,” Gupta wrote. “Today’s decision means that families of people killed or injured by corporate wrongdoing will be able to seek justice where they live — not hundreds or thousands of miles away.” 

To understand why the court can subject Ford to jurisdiction in suits where drivers were injured outside of the state where their cars were made, Kagan said, one need only look at the advertising Ford conducts outside of Michigan — or the other means Ford used to make cars more accessible for purchase outside of Michigan. 

All activities related to those vehicles, whether they are advertising for Ford’s cars or servicing those vehicles by shipping replacement parts to dealerships, contributed to the essential foundation to create specific jurisdiction. 

“In other words, Ford had systematically served a market in Montana and Minnesota for the very vehicles that the plaintiffs allege malfunctioned and injured them in those states,” Kagan wrote.

Ford argued it should be abdicated of responsibility since it sold cars outside of Michigan to dealers — which then sold the malfunctioning vehicles to the residents of their states. Kagan called it unclear, however, whether Bandemer and Gullet would have even bought those vehicles without Ford’s involvement. 

“Those contacts might turn any resident of Montana or Minnesota into a Ford owner — even when he buys his car from out of state,” Kagan wrote. “He may make that purchase because he saw ads for the car in local media. And he may take into account a raft of Ford’s in-state activities designed to make driving a Ford convenient there: that Ford dealers stand ready to service the car … and that Ford fosters an active resale market for its old models. The plaintiffs here did not in fact establish or even allege such casual links.” 

Because deliberations in the case preceded her confirmation to the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling. The other justices either concurred in full or only in judgment.

Justice Samuel Alito said his “only quibble” with Kagan’s analysis is with “the new gloss that the court puts on our case law.” The court’s interpretation recognizes a new category of cases that can give rise to personal jurisdiction claims: cases where challenges are not caused by the defendant's contacts, but still sufficiently related to those contacts in some way.  

“The whole point of those activities was to put more Fords (including those in question here) on Minnesota and Montana roads,” Alito wrote. “The common-sense relationship between Ford’s activities and these suits, in other words, is causal in a broad sense of the concept and personal jurisdiction can rest on this type of link without strict proof of the type Ford world require.” 

Justice Neil Gorsuch also submitted a concurring opinion noting the majority’s distinction in the phrase “relate to,” which Kagan and the court defines as an independent clause that does not connote causation. This distinction muddies the waters for causation, he wrote. 

“Not only does the majority’s new test risk adding new layers of confusion to our personal jurisdiction jurisprudence,” Gorsuch wrote, joined by Clarence Thomas. “The whole project seems unnecessary. Immediately after disavowing any need for a causal link between the defendant’s forum activities and the plaintiff’s injuries, the majority process to admit that such a link may be present here.” 

Sean Marotta, a Hogan Lovells attorney representing Ford, did not return a request for comment Thursday. Ford meanwhile thanked the court for its finding. “With their ruling, the justices provided clarity about jurisdiction for certain types of product-liability cases — precision which is good for plaintiffs and for companies across multiple industries who were represented by briefs filed in support of our request," a spokesman said in an email.

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