Case of the Day: Ford v. Montana

The case of the day is Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court (S. Ct. 2021). It’s a personal jurisdiction decision that keeps the law from going off the rails but also may be important in its future implications. The case involved a car accident that took place in one US state, the state where the injured plaintiff lived. Ford didn’t manufacture or design the car in that state, but it did advertise, sell, and service the car model that was involved in the accident there. Ford claimed that the state court lacked personal jurisdiction because it hadn’t manufactured or designed the particular car in question in that state, but the court rejected its argument: “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 Kagan, writing for the court, gave a very clear and helpful overview of personal jurisdiction doctrine:

  1. A state court can exercise jurisdiction over a defendant if the defendant has contacts with the state that make exercising jurisdiction “reasonable, in the context of our federal system of government” and if jurisdiction “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”
  2. There are two kinds of jurisdiction, general and specific.
  3. A court can exercise general jurisdiction, i.e., jurisdiction without regard to the nature of the claim, against any defendant that is “essential at home” in the state. This includes at least (though perhaps not only) defendants who are domiciled in the state (for natural persons) or who are incorporated or have a principal place of business there (for corporations).
  4. A court can exercise specific jurisdiction over defendants who have purposefully availed themselves of the privilege of conducting activities within the state, as long as the claim “arises out of or relates to” the defendant’s contacts with the state.

Ford’s argument was that while it had purposefully availed itself of the forum state, there was no causal link between its activities in the state and the claim, since Ford didn’t do anything in the state that even arguably caused the accident. The key point in the decision is the Court’s rejection of this requirement of causation. The cases require only that the claim “arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.” While “arising out of” relates to causation, “relating to” has to do with relationships that are sufficient even without causation:

Ford “enjoys the benefits and protection of [the state’s] laws”—the enforcement of contracts, the defense of property, the resulting formation of effective markets. All that assistance to Ford’s in-state business creates reciprocal obligations—most relevant here, that the car models Ford so extensively markets in [the state] be safe for [its] citizens to use there.

In a sense, the case seems routine: all eight justices who participated agreed with the outcome, although only five agreed with Justice Kagan’s reasoning. So why mention it? Well, I think that Justice Kagan’s discussion of the distinction between “arising out of” and “relating to” is important in other contexts. Take, for example, the question of the jurisdictional showing necessary when seeking recognition and enforcement of a final judgment. (N.B. check out Linda Silberman’s comment below and my responses for a better working out of this example). Perhaps no jurisdictional showing is needed—there are cases that take that view—but perhaps the ordinary principles the Court reviewed in its decision apply. In a specific jurisdiction case, it’s often going to be difficult to show that there is a causal connection between the claim asserted, namely a claim on a foreign judgment, and the jurisdictional contacts. But if the judgment debtor has assets in the state, relies on the state’s law to protect its property there, etc., and if the claim is really about that property, then perhaps the claim relates to the judgment debtor’s contacts in the state even if it doesn’t arise out of them in a causal sense. This is probably the example of greatest interest to Letters Blogatory readers, though I note that “arising out of or relating to” is a term of art used in lots of common contexts, from releases to agreements to arbitrate, and Justice Kagan’s gloss may be influential in those contexts as well.

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