WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier for consumers injured by products to sue their manufacturers, unanimously ruling that courts have jurisdiction over lawsuits filed in the consumers’ home states notwithstanding that the products were made and sold elsewhere so long as the manufacturers did substantial business in the states.
The case arose from two car accidents involving vehicles made by Ford Motor Company. In one, Markkaya Gullett was driving her 1996 Explorer near her Montana home when the tread separated from a tire. The vehicle spun into a ditch and flipped over, and Ms. Gullett died at the scene. Her estate sued Ford in state court in Montana.
In the other, Adam Bandemer was a passenger in a 1994 Crown Victoria, on his way to do some ice-fishing in Minnesota, when the driver rear-ended a snowplow. The passenger-side airbag failed, and Mr. Bandemer sustained serious brain damage. He sued in state court in Minnesota.
Ford argued that the courts lacked jurisdiction because the company did not have a relevant connection to those states. It had designed the vehicles in Michigan; it had manufactured the Explorer in Kentucky and sold it in Washington State; and it had manufactured the Crown Victoria in Canada and sold it in North Dakota. (The cars ended up in Montana and Minnesota after they were resold.)
The Supreme Court has long said that corporations may be sued for all purposes where they are incorporated or where their headquarters are. And they may be sued in particular cases if the plaintiff’s claims “arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts” with the state.
Ford, which is incorporated in Delaware and based in Michigan, argued that its contacts with Montana and Minnesota were insufficient to confer jurisdiction on their courts.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for five justices, said Ford’s activities in the states provided ample reasons to let the company be sued in them.
“By every means imaginable — among them, billboards, TV and radio spots, print ads and direct mail — Ford urges Montanans and Minnesotans to buy its vehicles, including (at all relevant times) Explorers and Crown Victorias,” she wrote. “Ford cars — again including those two models — are available for sale, whether new or used, throughout the states, at 36 dealerships in Montana and 84 in Minnesota.
“And apart from sales, Ford works hard to foster ongoing connections to its cars’ owners. The company’s dealers in Montana and Minnesota (as elsewhere) regularly maintain and repair Ford cars, including those whose warranties have long since expired,” she wrote. “And the company distributes replacement parts both to its own dealers and to independent auto shops in the two states. Those activities, too, make Ford money. And by making it easier to own a Ford, they encourage Montanans and Minnesotans to become lifelong Ford drivers.”
It did not matter, she wrote, that Ford made and sold the particular vehicles in other states.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined Justice Kagan’s opinion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case, which was argued before she joined the court.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted with the majority but did not adopt its reasoning, saying it had placed too much emphasis on the last two words in the phrase “arise out of or relate to.”
“Recognizing ‘relate to’ as an independent basis for specific jurisdiction risks needless complications,” he wrote.
But Justice Alito had no hesitation in letting the cases against Ford proceed.
“In entertaining these suits, Minnesota and Montana courts have not reached out and grabbed suits in which they ‘have little legitimate interest,’” he wrote, quoting an earlier decision. “Their residents, while riding in vehicles purchased within their borders, were killed or injured in accidents on their roads. Can anyone seriously argue that requiring Ford to litigate these cases in Minnesota and Montana would be fundamentally unfair?”
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, also filed a concurring opinion in the case, Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, No. 19-368, saying the court’s jurisprudence in this area was muddled and out of step with the modern reality of “corporations with global reach.”
ThinkCivics researches, examines, and reports on issues that matter most. We deliver explanative, fearless, and insightful analysis for public consumption.