MG+M attorneys Brian Gross and Carolyn Riggs summarize a recent decision in Rhode Island Superior Court that could have far-reaching implications for defendants in asbestos litigation in the state.
On October 13, 2016, Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney of the Rhode Island Superior Court ruled on Defendant Dana Companies, LLC’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction pending in the case of Harold Wayne Murray and Janice M. Murray v. 3M Company, et al., granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss upon finding that the court lacked sufficient minimum contacts to exercise personal jurisdiction – either general or specific – over the defendant. With this ruling, Rhode Island joins a growing list of jurisdictions that have applied the United States Supreme Court’s standard passed down in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746 (2014).
The Murray case was filed in Providence Superior Court, and involves a Tennessee resident alleging he developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos through his work with and around numerous defendants’ products over the course of his lifetime, predominantly at locations in Tennessee and Virginia. The complaint filed in Murray named hundreds of defendants who allegedly manufactured, sold, or supplied asbestos or asbestos-containing products to which Mr. Murray was allegedly exposed, including Dana Companies, LLC (“Dana”). Dana subsequently moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the grounds that a Rhode Island court’s exercise of jurisdiction, either specific or general, would violate its due process rights pursuant to the United State Constitution as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Daimler AG v. Bauman and its progeny.
Specifically, Dana asserted that as the plaintiff’s claims arose from alleged conduct that occurred entirely outside of Rhode Island with consequences transpiring outside of the State, the court’s exercise of specific personal jurisdiction was clearly improper. During his deposition taken near his home in Johnson City, Tennessee, Mr. Murray confirmed that he’d never lived in, worked in, received treatment in, or visited the State of Rhode Island. Absent a nexus between the plaintiff, the forum, and the litigation to permit the court’s exercise of specific personal jurisdiction, the court’s review of Dana’s motion to dismiss turned on the question of whether there was a basis to exert general jurisdiction over the defendant.
The court’s general jurisdiction analysis began by citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown for the proposition that a court may reasonably exercise general jurisdiction over a foreign corporation where the corporation’s affiliations with the state are so continuous and systematic as to render them essentially “at home” in the forum state. 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011); Int’l Shoe Co. v. State of Wash., Office of Unemployment Comp. and Placement, 326 U.S. 310, 317 (1945)).Upholding Daimler’s elaboration of this “at home” standard, the court reasoned that “with very limited exceptions, a defendant can customarily be subject to general jurisdiction in the state of its incorporation and the state of its principal place of business.” Going further, the court specified that evidence of a corporation’s continuous and systematic contact with a jurisdiction was relevant only to the determination of specific jurisdiction, and was not the proper ground for a finding of general jurisdiction.
Turning to the facts at bar, the court observed that both Dana and its predecessor were incorporated in Virginia with principal places of business in Ohio, with no offices, employees, or property in Rhode Island, and not registered or authorized to do business in Rhode Island. Dana reported no product sales to Rhode Island, though Dana’s predecessor reported historical sales to two Rhode Island businesses. However, such sales by Dana’s predecessor were reported to account for less than one-tenth of one percent of the company’s total annual net sales from 1997 to 2006. The court reasoned that under Daimler, “such contacts with the State of Rhode Island are insufficient to substantiate a finding of general jurisdiction over Dana.” The court went on to conclude that as Dana was not virtually ‘at home’ in the forum state for the purposes of general jurisdiction, the court lacked both general and specific personal jurisdiction over the defendant.
Beyond its significance for the extension of Daimler, the Murray ruling is instructive as to the proper exercise of the personal jurisdiction defense so as to avoid forfeiture. In an attempt to avoid the constitutional constraints of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff’s opposition argued that Dana forfeited its personal jurisdiction defense by attending four days of the plaintiff’s deposition prior to filing its motion, then attending eleven days of deposition following the filing of its motion. To inform its analysis of the question of forfeiture, the court focused on the “crucial” question of whether the party advancing the Rule 12 motion met the Rule’s underlying objective of eliminating unnecessary delay at the pleading stage. Citing Dana’s timely filing of its motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction thirty days after receipt of service of the plaintiff’s complaint, and its “limited and reasonable participation in discovery,” the court concluded that Dana did not forfeit its right to assert a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
The Murray decision is merely the latest in a line of cases expounding upon the landmark Daimlerdecision, with much remaining to be determined about the limits of a forum’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over a foreign corporation. The full decision can be read here.