The Stream-of-Commerce Doctrine under McIntyre and the First Reactions of U.S. Courts to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling

Cristina M. Mariottini is a Senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg on International, European and Regulatory Procedural Law

How the U.S. Supreme Court Has Relinquished Reciprocity in Jurisdiction in Cross-Border Products Liability Cases and Possible Future U.S. Federal Legislation on the Matter

Products liability is the area of law in which manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and others who make products available to the public are held accountable for the injuries caused by those products. As Justice Kennedy points out at the outset of his opinion in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro et. al., 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), whether a natural or legal person is subject to jurisdiction in a State is a question that frequently arises in products liability litigation. This question arises even with an out-of-forum defendant, i.e. despite the fact that the defendant was not present in the State, either at the time of suit or at the time of the alleged injury, and did not consent to the exercise of jurisdiction. Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McIntyre, the issue of specific in personam jurisdiction of U.S. courts over out-of-forum defendants in products liability cases was addressed several times by the U.S. Supreme Court, and particularly in International Shoe Company v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), World-Wide Volkswagen v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980) and Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, Solano Cty, 480 U.S. 102 (1987). With its decisions, the Court framed the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and introduced the stream-of-commerce doctrine. As the Court held, in products liability cases over an out-of-forum defendant it is the defendant’s purposeful availment that makes jurisdiction constitutionally proper and notably consistent with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice; moreover, the Court held that the transmission of goods permits the exercise of jurisdiction only where the defendant targeted the forum. It is not enough that the defendant might have predicted that its goods would reach the forum State. However, in Asahi’s plurality opinion,the Court developed two separate branches in the stream-of-commerce analysis. Holding that in a products liability case, constitutionally proper jurisdiction may only be established over an out-of-forum defendant where the defendant purposefully availed himself of the market in the forum State; merely placing the product or its components into the stream of commerce that swept the products into the forum State was insufficient to meet the minimum contacts requirement. Justice O’Connor, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices Powell and Scalia, drafted what is commonly known as the “foreseeability plus” or “stream-of-commerce plus” theory of minimum contacts. In a concurring opinion Justice Brennan, joined by Justices White, Marshall, and Blackmun, appeared to accept the principle that sales of large quantities of the defendant’s product in a U.S. State, even indirectly through the stream of commerce, would support jurisdiction in that State, depending on the nature and the quantity of those sales. However, in Justice Brennan’s opinion, even simply placing a product into the stream of commerce with knowledge that the product will eventually be used in the forum State constitutes purposeful availment for jurisdictional purposes. Regardless of the fact that eventually the Justices agreed that a constitutionally proper specific in personam jurisdiction could not be established in Asahi over the out-of-forum defendant, inconsistency has developed among the lower courts in regards to how the foreseeability test should be applied. By granting certiorari on the petition from the New Jersey Supreme Court in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro et al. (in which the N.J. Supreme Court found personal jurisdiction over the manufacturer), the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the need to tackle the question of the stream-of-commerce doctrine, and particularly the issues left open by the lack of a majority opinion in Asahi. Nonetheless, on June 27, 2011, a – once again – deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in McIntyre, holding that, because a machinery manufacturer never engaged in activities in New Jersey with the intent to invoke or benefit from the protection of the State’s laws, New Jersey lacked personal jurisdiction over the company under the Due Process Clause. As the plurality opinion held, a foreign company that markets a product only to the United States generally, but does not purposefully direct its product to an individual State, is not subject to specific jurisdiction in the State where its product causes an injury. Unfortunately, the McIntyre decision failed to provide a comprehensible framework for practitioners and lower courts faced with specific in personam jurisdiction questions. In a sharply fragmented plurality opinion – where six Justices voted to overrule the lower court’s decision, but only four joined the lead opinion, and a dissenting opinion was filed by Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan – McIntyre marks a strong narrowing down of the stream-of-commerce doctrine. Justice Kennedy’s plurality made clear that the stream of commerce, per se, does not support personal jurisdiction, and that something more is required. While the concurrence did not fully support Justice Kennedy’s opinion, they too apparently rejected Justice Brennan’s view in Asahi that a product is subject to jurisdiction for a products liability action, so long as the manufacturer can reasonably foresee that the distribution of its products through a nationwide system might lead to those products being sold in any of the fifty States. The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in McIntyre undoubtedly results in a positive development for foreign companies and a truly unfavorable outcome for U.S. plaintiffs in products liability cases. At the outset of her dissenting opinion in McIntyre, Justice Ginsburg provocatively asks:
A foreign industrialist seeks to develop a market in the United States for machines it manufactures. It hopes to derive substantial revenue from sales it makes to United States purchasers. Where in the United States buyers reside does not matter to this manufacturer. Its goal is simply to sell as much as it can, wherever it can. It excludes no region or State from the market it wishes to reach. But, all things considered, it prefers to avoid products liability litigation in the United States. To that end, it engages a U.S. distributor to ship its machines stateside. Has it succeeded in escaping personal jurisdiction in a State where one of its products is sold and causes injury or even death to a local user? Under this Court’s pathmarking precedent in International Shoe Co. v. Washington, and subsequent decisions, one would expect the answer to be unequivocally, No.’ But instead, six Justices of this Court, in divergent opinions, tell us that the manufacturer has avoided the jurisdiction of our State courts, except perhaps in States where its products are sold in sizeable quantities.
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg seems to suggest that under Article 5(3) of the Brussels I Regulation the courts of the United Kingdom would have had no hesitation in asserting their jurisdiction over the case, if J. McIntyre had been a U.S. manufacturer and Nicastro a UK resident and had the accident occurred in the United Kingdom. Based upon the fact that, pursuant to Article 2, the Brussels I Regulation applies to defendants domiciled in the EU and that pursuant to Article 4(1) when “the defendant is not domiciled in a Member State, the jurisdiction of the courts of each Member State shall, subject to Articles 22 and 23, be determined by the law of that Member State”, the argument could be raised that the hypothetical suggested by Justice Ginsburg (where the defendant is a U.S. manufacturer, i.e. a non-EU domiciliary), would not fall in the scope of application of the Brussels I Regulation. As for England and Wales, the Civil Procedure Rules of England and Wales would apply, instead, and notably CPR 6.20(8), whereby the courts of England and Wales may assume jurisdiction in tort claims where the damage was sustained in England, or the damage sustained resulted from an act committed within England. Accordingly, the difference in the applicable statute does not weaken the final point made by Justice Ginsburg in her dissent. In the hypothetical put forward by Justice Ginsburg, the courts of England and Wales would indeed have had no hesitation in asserting their jurisdiction over the U.S. manufacturer. Moreover, the European solution in this area of law goes even further. Article 3(1) and (2) of the EEC Directive 85/374/EEC on Product Liability provides:
Article 3 1. ‘Producer’ means the manufacturer of a finished product, the producer of any raw material or the manufacturer of a component part and any person who, by putting his name, trade mark or other distinguishing feature on the product presents himself as its producer. 2. Without prejudice to the liability of the producer, any person who imports into the Community a product for sale, hire, leasing or any form of distribution in the course of his business shall be deemed to be a producer within the meaning of this Directive and shall be responsible as a producer.
As a result of, respectively, Articles 2, 5 and 60 of the Brussels I Regulation, there will always be a defendant domiciled in the Internal Market: the importer deemed to be the producer. Hence, the conclusion may be drawn that with McIntyre the U.S. Supreme Court has relinquished reciprocity in jurisdictional issues in cross-border torts and notably in products liability cases, to the disadvantage of United States plaintiffs who seek to acquire jurisdiction over foreign defendants who caused them an injury in the plaintiffs’ home State. The need for legislation in this area was recognized in 2009 by the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary “Leveling the Playing Field and Protecting Americans,” which subsequently introduced the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2009 (see here Trey Childress’ post on this blog). This bill required foreign manufacturers of products imported into the United States to establish registered agents in the United States who are authorized to accept service of process against such manufacturers, and for other purposes. The Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2010 was a re-introduction of the 2009 bill; but, again, it was not enacted. In 2011, the bill was re-introduced a third time as the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2011. The bill is assigned to a Congressional committee, which will now consider it before possibly sending it on to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate. Hopefully, the uncertainties that stem from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McIntyre will be taken into due consideration by the U.S. legislators when addressing the possible enactment of this bill. The First Reactions of U.S. Courts to McIntyre As expected, objections and critiques are now being raised by U.S. courts against the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. In Weinberg et al. v. Grand Circle Travel LLC, 2012 WL 4096611 (D.Mass.), the estate of a Florida resident, who died in a hot air balloon crash in the Serengeti, and the deceased’s fiancée, who was also a Florida resident and who sustained severe bodily injuries in the crash, brought a negligence action against the travel agent (a Massachusetts company) and the Tanzanian company that operated the hot air balloon. The balloon company moved to dismiss for want of personal jurisdiction. In drawing its conclusions, and regretfully granting the motion to dismiss, the District Court of Massachusetts stated:
It seems unfair that the Serengeti defendants can reap the benefits of obtaining American business and not be subject to suit in our country. It is perhaps unfortunate that recent jurisprudence appears to “turn the clock back to the days before modern long-arm statutes when a [business], to avoid being hailed into court where a user is injured, need only Pilate-like wash its hands of a product by having [agents] market it.,” Russell J. Weintraub, A Map Out of the Personal Jurisdiction Labyrinth, 28 U.C. Davis L.Rev. 531, 555 (1995), and that, in many circumstances, American consumers “may now have to litigate in distant fora - or abandon their claims altogether,” Arthur R. Miller, Inaugural University Professorship Lecture: Are They Closing the Courthouse Doors? 13 (March 19, 2012) (criticizing the plurality opinion in J. McIntyre Mach. v. Nicastro), but this Court must follow the law as authoritatively declared.
The fact that in Weinberg the accident occurred in the defendant’s State (unlike in McIntyre, where the accident occurred in New Jersey, where the plaintiff was also resident), inevitably weakens the constitutional soundness of the District Court’s jurisdictional power over the foreign defendant. Nonetheless, regardless of such a weakened power, it appears that the District Court – siding with Justice Ginsburg’s dissent – felt the urge to emphasize the fact that foreign defendants can benefit from American business without the risk of being brought to court in the U.S., and suggested that this issue should be reviewed in order to ensure access to justice to U.S. plaintiffs in cross-border tort claims. Finally, in Surefire LLC v. Casual Home Wolrdwide, Inc., 2012 WL 2417313 (S.D.Cal.), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California refused to apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McIntyre in a patent infringement claim against an out-of-forum defendant, stating that a Supreme Court plurality opinion is not binding law. One can only hope that it will not take a further quarter of a century for the U.S. Supreme Court to sort out – possibly with a stronger awareness of the ramifications of the assessment of jurisdiction in cross-border matters and especially with a view to international private relations – the confusing picture that the lack of a majority in McIntyre has left behind and with which courts and legal practitioners must cope. My most sincere gratitude goes to Prof. Dr. Burkhard Hess for his very insightful inputs. My appreciation also goes to Adrienne Lester-Fitje for kindly editing this text. Any errors are, of course, mine.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Giacomo Pailli December 6, 2012, 9:53 am

    Dear Ms. Mariottini, thanks for your insightful piece.

    Let me add a couple of “non-revolutionary” thoughts.
    I find fascinating the different ways in which the US and (continental) Europe ‘thinks’ the jurisdictional issue.
    US divides jurisdiction into several other concepts (prescriptive, judicial, executive) and then judicial jurisdiction into subject-matter and personal jurisdiction. All is surrounded by the Constitutional requirement of due-process, which renders even more difficult for US Congress to act in this troubled area. Moreover, the judge enjoys a certain inherent discretional power on whether to hear a case or not (such as for the doctrine of forum non conveniens). Briefly, the question that the judge ask herself when faced with a case is “should I exercise my jurisdiction over this defendant?”

    In continental Europe it is not so. Rules on jurisdiction are usually absolutely binding on the judge and pose this sort of question “Do I have the duty to exercise my jurisdiction over this dispute?” It does not really matter who is the defendant or whether the defendant does not have any link to the forum. It only matters whether one of the rules on jurisdiction, as applied to the particular controversy, enables the jurisdiction of the forum. Such rule might well be that the defendant is domiciled in the forum State, but it might also be, as Justice Ginsburg noted, that the damage occurred within that State.

    A supplemental difference is represented by the rule on “related” actions or defendants (in Italian ‘connessione’). In US it is not sufficient to exercise jurisdiction over the US importer in order to catch the foreign producer. The personal jurisdiction test must be repeated for each and every defendant.
    In many European systems, instead, it is enough that the domicile of one of the defendants (or another criterium) enables the jurisdiction of the State and pretty much everybody can be joined in such action, notwithstanding the lack of any contact or other link between the other defendants and the forum. Once again, the jurisdiction is not measured ‘on the defendant’, but more so ‘on the dispute’.

    I hope I did not put too many mistakes in these few lines!

    Giacomo Pailli