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Thomas v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 10, 2017

DEAN THOMAS and MARGARET THOMAS, Plaintiffs,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant. and WISCONSIN PHYSICIANS SERVICE INSURANCE CORPORATION, Involuntary Plaintiff,

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Dean and Margaret Thomas brought this suit advancing claims of negligence and strict liability against defendant Ford Motor Company. The Thomases have named Wisconsin Physicians Service Insurance Corporation (WPS) as an involuntary plaintiff in this action to resolve any subrogation interest it might have in the proceeds. Ford has filed motions to dismiss against both the Thomases and WPS (collectively referred to as Plaintiffs) pursuant to Rule 12(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting that it is not subject to personal jurisdiction in Wisconsin. Plaintiffs have moved for an extension of time to respond to the motions in order to conduct discovery regarding personal jurisdiction. For the reasons set forth below, Ford's motions will be denied and Plaintiffs' motion will be denied as moot.

         BACKGROUND

         Dean and Margaret Thomas, residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin, owned a 2009 Ford Flex that was primarily designed and developed in Michigan and assembled in Canada. Initially, Hertz-Rent-A-Car located in San Francisco, California purchased the Flex from an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Ford dealership. Although it is unclear how the vehicle ended up in Wisconsin, the Thomases purchased the Ford Flex on June 30, 2010, from Eric von Schledorn Ford Inc. located in Random Lake, Wisconsin. The purchase also included the remainder of the manufacturer's warranty. The Thomases titled, licensed, registered, and insured the Ford Flex in Wisconsin and serviced the vehicle at Dorsch Ford Lincoln in Green Bay, Wisconsin until the warranty expired.

         In October 2015, the Thomases drove their Ford Flex to Pennsylvania to visit their daughter. While driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Allegheny County on October 25, 2015, Margaret hit a deer that had jumped in front of the Flex. As she slowed and moved to the shoulder of the turnpike, the Flex was rear-ended. Plaintiffs allege that upon impact, the back of the right front passenger seat where Dean was sitting malfunctioned. As a result, Dean was rendered a quadriplegic.

         ANALYSIS

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(2) challenges whether the court has jurisdiction over a party. Though the plaintiff has the burden of proving personal jurisdiction, the burden is not a heavy one. Advance Tactical Ordnance Sys., LLC v. Real Action Paintball, Inc., 751 F.3d 796, 799800 (7th Cir. 2014). In deciding whether personal jurisdiction exists, the court may rely on the complaint, affidavits, deposition testimony, exhibits, or other evidence in the record. See Research Found. v. Sanofi Synthelabo, S.A., 338 F.3d 773, 782 (7th Cir. 2003). The court must draw all inferences from the record in the plaintiff's favor. PKWare, Inc. v. Meade, 79 F.Supp.2d 1007, 1011 (E.D. Wis. 2000).

         “A federal district court sitting in diversity must apply the personal jurisdiction rules of the state in which it sits.” Kipp v. Ski Enter. Corp. of Wis., Inc., 783 F.3d 695, 697 (7th Cir. 2015). Under Wisconsin law, a court must engage in a two-step inquiry to determine whether it may exercise personal jurisdiction. First, the court must determine whether the defendants are subject to jurisdiction under Wisconsin's long-arm statute, Wis.Stat. § 801.05. Kopke v. A. Hartrodt, S.R.L., 2001 WI 99, ¶ 8, 245 Wis.2d 396, 629 N.W.2d 662. If the statutory requirements are satisfied, the court must then decide whether the exercise of jurisdiction comports with the requirements of due process. Id. Ford does not dispute that Wisconsin's long-arm statute confers jurisdiction in this case. Therefore, the court must determine whether its exercise of jurisdiction satisfies the due process requirements.

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant only if that defendant has “minimum contacts” with the forum State, “such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945). The concept of minimum contacts protects a defendant from having to litigate in a distant forum and allows the defendant to reasonably anticipate where he may be haled into court. See World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980). The primary focus of the personal jurisdiction analysis “is the defendant's relationship to the forum State.” Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., San Fran. Cnty., 137 S.Ct. 1773, 1797 (2017). Personal jurisdiction may either be specific or general, “depending on the extent of the defendant's contacts with the forum state.” See uBid, Inc. v. GoDaddy Grp., Inc., 623 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2010); Helicopteros Nacionales de Columbia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 41416 (1984). General jurisdiction exists only when a party has “continuous and systematic” contacts with the forum State. Id. Corporations are found to have “continuous and systematic” contacts with a forum State in which they are incorporated and their principle place of business is located. See Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746, 754 (2014).

         Specific personal jurisdiction is proper only if the “defendant's suit-related conduct . . . create[s] a substantial connection with the forum State.” Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, 1121 (2014). Specific jurisdiction is appropriate where (1) the defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum State or purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting business in that State and (2) the defendant's forum-related activities caused the plaintiff's injury. Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693, 702 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 (1985)). The purposeful availment inquiry “is ultimately about whether the party should reasonably anticipate being haled into court in the forum state.” Trade Well Int'l v. United Cent. Bank, 825 F.3d 854, 859 (7th Cir. 2016).

         Plaintiffs assert that this court has specific personal jurisdiction over Ford based on the stream of commerce theory. It has long been established that a court may properly exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state corporation when it “delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.” World-Wide Volkswagen Corp., 444 U.S. at 297 98. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has yet to reach a consensus on the proper test to determine whether a defendant “purposefully avails” itself in the forum State under the stream of commerce theory.

         The Court acknowledged the stream of commerce theory in World-Wide Volkswagen, but further elaborated on the theory in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, Solano County, 480 U.S. 102 (1987). In that case, a plaintiff injured in a motorcycle accident in California brought suit in California state court against the Japanese manufacturer of the allegedly defective motorcycle tires. Id. at 105 06. While the Court unanimously agreed that the California state court lacked personal jurisdiction over the manufacturer, the case resulted in numerous tests articulating when a defendant purposefully avails itself in a forum State, none of which were approved by a majority of the Court. Justice O'Connor, writing for a plurality of four, endorsed what is now known as the “stream of commerce plus” theory. She stated that “[t]he placement of a product into the stream of commerce, without more, is not an act of the defendant purposefully directed toward the forum State.” Id. at 112. Instead, some “additional conduct” establishing the defendant's “intent or purpose to serve the market in the forum State” is necessary. Id. This additional conduct may include “designing the product for the market in the forum State, advertising in the forum State, establishing channels for providing regular advice to customers in the forum State, or marketing the product through a distributor who has agreed to serve as the sales agent in the forum State.” Id. Though Justice O'Connor did not conclusively limit “additional conduct” to these particular examples, she did observe that “a defendant's awareness that the stream of commerce may or will sweep the product into the forum State does not convert the mere act of placing the product into the stream into an act purposefully directed toward the forum State.” Id.

         Justice Brennan, also writing for four justices, rejected the stream of commerce plus approach, and instead supported a less-demanding test. He found that a defendant participating in “the regular and anticipated flow of products from manufacture to distribution to retail sale” is properly subject to jurisdiction so long as the defendant is “aware that the final product is being marketed in the forum State.” Id. at 117 (Brennan, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Justice Stevens, joined by two justices, believed the constitutional determination of minimum contacts cannot assume an “unwavering line . . . between ‘mere awareness' that a component will find its way into the forum State and ‘purposeful availment' of the forum's market.” Id. at 122 (Stevens, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Instead, he concluded that a court must evaluate “the volume, the value, and the hazardous character” of the defendant's product to determine purposeful availment. Id.

         A similarly-divided Court revisited the issue in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873 (2011). Justice Kennedy, writing for the plurality, adopted Justice O'Connor's stream of commerce plus approach. Id. at 885 (finding that “authority to subject a defendant to judgment depends on purposeful availment, consistent with Justice O'Connor's opinion in Asahi”). Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment and declined to support any of the separate opinions from Asahi. Id. at 888 (Breyer, J., concurring in judgment). Relying on World-Wide Volkswagen, Justice Breyer concluded that a single, isolated sale of a defendant's product in the forum State “even if that ...


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