This article discusses the consolidated Supreme Court appeal in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District, to be argued on October 7, 2020. The plaintiffs in the two underlying cases suffered injuries or death while in a Ford Motor Co. vehicle involved in an accident on state highways. Ford appeals from the Montana and Minnesota Supreme court decisions upholding assertion of personal jurisdiction based on theories of specific jurisdiction. The appeal addresses the question whether a state court—consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Constitution and federalism principles—may assert personal jurisdiction over a corporate defendant that regularly markets and sells products in the state, but where the plaintiff’s claims are only remotely connected to the defendant’s out-of-state conduct.
The Ford appeal highlights a gap in the Court’s evolving doctrinal embrace of the concept of specific jurisdiction. The Court has been less than pellucidly clear concerning the degree of connectedness required for a state legitimately to assert specific personal jurisdiction. In addition, the Court has not distinctly defined the necessary nexus between a defendant’s out-of-state conduct and a forum plaintiff’s claims that would support jurisdiction. This appeal affords the Court the opportunity to clarify the quality and nature of the necessary nexus between a non-resident defendant’s activities and the plaintiff’s claims to support a legitimate assertion of specific jurisdiction. The Court most likely will grapple with the precise formulation of the test for connectedness, with Ford urging one formulation, the U.S. government advocating another, more lenient construction, and the plaintiffs arguing in favor of retention of the status quo.
Furthermore, the Court may address whether the tests approved and applied by the Montana and Minnesota Supreme Courts effectively conflated general and specific jurisdiction, exposing non-resident defendants to a foreign state’s jurisdiction based on random, fortuitous circumstances. In addition, the Court may broadly comment on the territorial, federalism issues implicated and whether the Montana and the Minnesota Supreme Court decisions were prohibited exercises of territorial overreach. Finally, the Court may address whether the Montana and Minnesota broadly-construed specific jurisdiction tests comport with the Court’s prior discussions of due process.