25 March 2021

Today at SCOTUS

The U.S. Supreme Court made two rulings today.

Long Arm Jurisdiction In Product Liability Cases

In Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial Dist., No. 19-368 (U.S. March 25, 2021), a unanimous court held that Ford could be sued for injuries suffered in Montana and Minnesota, respectively, as a result of defective vehicles which were purchased used in those states, but sold new in other states, despite the fact that Ford is incorporated in Delaware, has its principle offices in Michigan, and did not design or manufacture the vehicles in those states. Five justices writing in the majority provide one justification. Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito concur.

This case is a serious step back from a string of recent cases greatly limiting the ability of Plaintiffs to secure jurisdiction over defendants in tort cases. 

Most notably, "general jurisdiction" (which authorizes lawsuits against a company in a state on any matter without regard to where it arises) which used to be available in any state in which a corporation has an agent or office for the conduct of business in a state, under International Shoe, which would have made this case an easy one, since there are Ford dealerships in both Montana and Minnesota, has now been restricted to states in which a firm has a headquarters, is incorporated, or has a secondary office amounting to a headquarters.

So, the court was forced to determine if these cases gave rise to "specific jurisdiction" connected to these particular incidents, despite the fact that none of Ford's actions in the specific chain of causation of these particular incidents was readily linked to conduct of the company in Montana or Minnesota. 

The Court held that while acts committed in a state can provide one basis for specific jurisdiction, other activity in a state and a connection of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit in a state, together, at least, can give rise to specific jurisdiction as well. Here, since Ford actively markets to and does business with people in Montana and Minnesota, and the incidents in question took place in those states and harmed residents of those states, that specific jurisdiction was still present. 

The majority also presented a counter-example in which an individual craftsman merely selling a few custom made goods over the Internet and mails to someone in a state might not be subject to product liability suits in the state where the goods were sold. 

The exact theory of why these results obtained was muddy, spawning the two concurring opinions.

Liability For Excessive Use Of Force By Police

In Torres v. MadridNo .19-292 (U.S. March 25, 2020), the Court delivered a 5-3 decision (Barrett not participating) regarding search and seizure law, holding that the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued. The fact pattern, according to the official syllabus of the decision was as follows:

Respondents Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson, officers with the New Mexico State Police, arrived at an Albuquerque apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant and approached petitioner Roxanne Torres, then standing near a Toyota FJ Cruiser. The officers attempted to speak with her as she got into the driver’s seat. Believing the officers to be carjackers, Torres hit the gas to escape. The officers fired their service pistols 13 times to stop Torres, striking her twice. Torres managed to escape and drove to a hospital 75 miles away, only to be airlifted back to a hospital in Albuquerque, where the police arrested her the next day. 
Torres later sought damages from the officers under 42 U. S. C. §1983. She claimed that the officers used excessive force against her and that the shooting constituted an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Affirming the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the officers, the Tenth Circuit held that “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim.” 769 Fed. Appx. 654, 657. 

Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito dissented.

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