In Ford lawsuits case, Supreme Court argues over the power of state courts (Updated)

By Sophie Austin

The Supreme Court grappled with the limitations of court authority in an oral argument Wednesday over a case involving two car accident lawsuits filed against Ford Motor Co.

Throughout the argument, the court’s justices wrestled with multiple factors, including where the plaintiffs live and were injured, that could help determine whether Minnesota and Montana courts had the power to try the Ford lawsuits. Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised a hypothetical at one point about a car designed, manufactured and sold in three different states.

“Is there any single state where the plaintiff could allege all those torts?” Sotomayor said.

The Supreme Court’s decision could bring more clarity to future litigation over vehicle traffic crashes, which killed 36,120 people in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Minnesota resident Adam Bandemer, a plaintiff in the case, alleges that he was injured in a car accident in 2015 after an airbag failed to deploy during a collision, according to Ford’s Supreme Court petition. Bandemer says he was in the passenger seat of a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria when the driver rear-ended a snow plow. 

In 2016, Bandemer sued Ford in Minnesota state court, accusing Ford of negligence and breaching its warranty claims. 

However, Ford argues that since it didn’t design, manufacture or originally sell the 1994 Ford Crown Victoria in Minnesota, the Minnesota state court doesn’t have personal jurisdiction – the authority a court has to make decisions that affect the defendant of a lawsuit – over Bandemer’s suit.

Ford’s headquarters are in Michigan, and the company was incorporated in Delaware in 1919, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

After the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that the state court did have personal jurisdiction over Bandemer’s lawsuit, the case went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which upheld the decision.

Ford makes a similar argument about a case involving Markkaya Jean Gullett, a Montana resident who died in 2015 after the tread on her Ford Explorer’s tires separated and she lost control of the car. Gullett’s estate sued Ford in state district court, which denied the company’s motion to dismiss design-defect and negligence claims. 

Deepak Gupta, a lawyer representing Bandemer and Gullett, said Wednesday that the Minnesota and Montana courts have the authority to try these lawsuits because the plaintiffs were injured in the same state where the lawsuits were filed.

“This court has never read the due process clause to deprive the states of their sovereign powers to try cases in their own courts and protect people injured within their own borders on anything like the facts presented here,” Gupta said. “Over the objection of 40 state attorneys general, Ford asks this court to extinguish the state’s traditional authority.”

Justice Clarence Thomas asked Sean Marotta, a lawyer representing Ford, whether a Tennessee resident, for example, who bought a used Ford vehicle in Roanoke, Virginia, could sue the company in Tennessee after a car accident.

“If somehow Ford connected you to that through the inventory of a used car dealer, perhaps,” Marotta said. “But, if it’s just that you saw on the internet through, you know, a classified ad that there’s a great value across the state line, the answer is no, because that’s the action of third parties.”

Gupta argued that Ford “deliberately cultivated the market,” for its cars in both states, which is another element that he said allows the Minnesota and Montana courts to try the plaintiffs’ lawsuits.

In response to Sotomayor’s hypothetical, Marotta said that the person could sue Ford where the vehicle was designed, assembled or purchased. However, in the Minnesota and Montana cases, Ford did not design, assemble or sell the cars involved in the accidents in the states where the plaintiffs sued.

Sotomayor was the dissenting voice in an 8-1 Supreme Court decision in 2017 involving Bristol-Myers Squibb. The court ruled that state courts don’t have personal jurisdiction over lawsuits filed by non-residents or by plaintiffs injured in another state. 

Justice Elena Kagan said that although Marotta repeatedly compared the Bristol-Myers Squibb ruling to Ford’s case, the two have notable differences.

“The plaintiffs weren’t residents of California. They didn’t use the product there. They hadn’t been injured there,” Kagan said. “Now that’s three differences from this case.”

Despite Marotta’s argument that it would be “unfair” for the Montana and Minnesota courts to make a decision regarding these lawsuits, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that “Ford litigates lots of cases in Minnesota and Montana.”

Fifty minutes into the court’s argument, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that Gupta’s remarks did not clarify what types of cases are outside of a court’s authority to try. 

Gupta said his argument made clear that, in these cases, the Minnesota and Montana courts have specific jurisdiction, meaning they have authority to try suits connected to a defendant’s in-state activities. 

“What could be more specific than the place where the person had the injury and the specific make, model and year of a product?” Gupta said.

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