Ford loses Supreme Court decision, state claims can go forward

Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press

The U.S. Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision Thursday that product liability lawsuits against Ford Motor Co. in two states could move forward in those jurisdictions even though the vehicles in question were not produced or sold in either.

Ford's lawyers had argued that because the vehicles involved in the two 2015 crashes at issue — one in Montana and the other in Minnesota —  involved Ford vehicles manufactured in the 1990s that were not originally manufactured or sold in those states, cases brought against the company in state courts should not proceed. 

Instead, Ford said they should have been brought elsewhere, as in Washington State and North Dakota, where the vehicles were first sold. To do otherwise, Ford argued, upends precedent that gives corporations certainty as to where they can be sued and under what conditions.

In the Montana crash, Markkaya Gullett was killed after the tread on a rear tire on her 1996 Ford Explorer separated and the vehicle rolled into a ditch. In Minnesota, Adam Bandemer suffered brain injuries while on his way to ice fishing when a friend's 1994 Crown Victoria was rear-ended and the airbag failed to deploy.

Ford said in a statement that even though the outcome was not what it sought, it was pleased the court provided "clarity about jurisdiction for certain types of product-liability cases." The decision, however, may lead to more questions about when and where such cases may be brought, some conservative justices of the court said.

The Constitution's due process clause generally limits the jurisdiction of state courts over defendants based on the level of their activities or "affiliations" in the state. And while Ford does business in both Montana and Minnesota, the company argued that a legal action against it in either required a more specific connection between its actions in those states and the cause of a lawsuit to permit a case to be brought. 

Otherwise, the company said in a brief in the case, there could be a "loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction" that could arise nationally.

The court, however, rejected that argument 8-0, in a decision that followed a hearing last October in which both liberal and conservative justices questioned why someone shouldn't be able to bring a case against a company doing business nationally regardless of where they live.

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Writing the opinion, Justice Elena Kagan repeated those sentiments, saying, "When a car 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."

"Ford is a global auto company," she continued. "(Its) business is everywhere… To enhance its brand and increase its sales, Ford engages in wide-ranging

promotional activities, including television, print, online and direct-mail advertisements. No matter where you live, you’ve seen them: 'Have you driven a Ford lately?' or 'Built

Ford Tough.'"

Even in cases where a vehicle at issue in a lawsuit may not have been made or purchased in the state where a crash occurred, she said, the driver may have bought it "because he saw ads for the car in local media" or other efforts by Ford to sell other vehicles there, establishing a firm enough connection.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, while agreeing with the decision, wrote in a separate opinion, however, that there are still questions provoked by the ruling — namely, when the connection between a company's efforts to sell products in a place is or is not enough to warrant a case in a state court. For instance, he said, Ford may have had "continuous" contacts in the two states, supporting the cases. But what about more "isolated or sporadic" transactions, done over the Internet by a small entrepreneur?

"(Between) the poles of 'continuous' and 'isolated' contacts lie a virtually infinite number of 'affiliations' waiting to be explored," Gorsuch wrote.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the decision as she wasn't on the court when the case was heard.

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