Personal Jurisdiction in Light of Ford Motor Co.: Revolution or Evolution?

*Joseph Canner

I. Personal Jurisdiction: A Brief Review

As every first-year civil procedure student knows, defendants can only be sued in states where the courts have jurisdiction over that defendant.[1] This concept is known as personal jurisdiction. In most garden-variety product liability or breach of contract cases there are two requirements for a court to have personal jurisdiction over a defendant: (1) the defendant has at least minimum contacts with the forum state,[2] and (2) that the cause of action arises out of or relates to those minimum contacts (the nexus requirement).[3]

Typically, a plaintiff satisfies the minimum contacts requirement when a company sells a product in a state and is sued in that state.[4] However, if a company sells a product in one state and the product somehow ends up in another state and causes an injury there, it is less clear whether there is personal jurisdiction over the defendant in the state where the injury occurred. For example, in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro,the defendant’s product ended up in the forum state via a third-party distributor rather than as the result of direct contacts with the forum state by the defendant.[5] In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the forum state lacked jurisdiction;[6] however, the Court disagreed on what kinds of contacts would be necessary to permit jurisdiction.[7]

The nexus requirement has appeared in several Supreme Court cases over the last forty-five years,[8] but there have not been any cases that tested the boundaries of the requirement.[9] As a result, the Supreme Court has never directly addressed the issue of whether a plaintiff can sue an out-of-state defendant over a product that was manufactured and sold elsewhere, later found its way into the plaintiff’s home state, and caused injury to the plaintiff there.[10] In light of the ubiquity of Internet sales and interstate movement of goods, Supreme Court guidance on this question was long overdue.

II. What’s New in Ford Motor Co.?

In 2021, the Supreme Court finally addressed this question in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, at least in a situation where the defendant has significant contacts in the forum state.[11] Ford Motor Co. was a consolidated case involving car accidents in Minnesota and Montana.[12] In both cases, Ford Motor Company (Ford) contested personal jurisdiction in the forum states because the vehicles involved in the accidents were purchased elsewhere and later brought into the forum states.[13] In a unanimous decision, the Court held that Ford had considerable contacts in the forum state, including having advertised, sold, and serviced both car models involved in the accidents.[14] Therefore, these contacts were sufficient to warrant personal jurisdiction.[15] Furthermore, the Court noted that these contacts need not be the direct cause of the injury, only that there must be a connection or affiliation.[16]

The Court’s holding was somewhat surprising given that the Court may have been drifting pro-business in the area of personal jurisdiction over the last few decades and given that it was an 8-0 decision.[17] Missing from the Ford Motor Co. opinion, however, was any concrete guidance for future cases. During oral arguments, the plaintiffs proposed a test: that personal jurisdiction is proper when the injury is caused by a product that is normally sold in the forum state, even if the product causing the injury was not sold there.[18] The Court did not explicitly adopt such a test in its opinion. Justice Gorsuch asked the plaintiffs whether the test should apply to finished products or to component parts;[19] however, the opinion did not address that issue either. The opinion also left open the question of whether the result would have been the same if the defendant had been a small company shipping products by mail rather than a large, multinational company with facilities and staff in every state. During oral arguments, Chief Justice Roberts posed this issue through a hypothetical.[20] In its opinion, the Court said that such a hypothetical would not result in personal jurisdiction, but it did not elaborate further.[21]

III. What’s Next for Personal Jurisdiction?

Although Ford Motor Co. appeals to common sense and helps plaintiffs who want to sue companies close to home, there is still considerable ground to cover in this area of the law. In his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch expressed concern for future cases, noting that the International Shoe test may not be up to the task in today’s economy.[22] He concluded by stating:

New technologies and new schemes to evade the process server will always be with us. But if our concern is with ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice,’ . . . not just our personal and idiosyncratic impressions of those things, perhaps we will always wind up asking variations of the same questions . . . . Hopefully, future litigants and lower courts will help us face these tangles and sort out a responsible way to address the challenges posed by our changing economy.[23]

Given how much is still left unsettled, the good news of Ford Motor Co. could be short-lived. For example, the Court could decline to apply the same logic in future cases where the contacts are not as substantial. The Court would do well, however, to continue the pattern established in Ford Motor Co. and chart a twenty-first-century path of moderation and fairness to both plaintiffs and defendants.

*Joseph Canner is a second-year evening student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he is a Staff Editor for Law Review. He also serves as a member of the National Appellate Advocacy Moot Court Team, a Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Distinguished Scholar, and a Law Scholar for Professor Dolin’s Contracts II class. Joseph has a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and an M.H.S. in Biostatistics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Joseph’s day job is Principal Data Scientist for the Yale University School of Medicine Department of Surgery.


[1] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1 (“[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. . . .”); see also Pennoyer v. Neff , 95 U.S. 714, 733 (1877) (“Since the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . proceedings in a court of justice to determine the personal rights and obligations of parties over whom that court has no jurisdiction do not constitute due process of law.”).

[2] Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316–17 (1945).

[3] Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011) (“Specific jurisdiction . . . depends on an ‘affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy’ . . . [and] is confined to adjudication of ‘issues deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction.’”) (citations omitted).

[4] See, e.g., McGee v. Int’l Life Ins. Co., 355 U.S. 220, 223 (1957).

[5] J. McIntyre Mach., Ltd. v. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873, 878 (2011).

[6] Id. at 877.

[7] Id. at 890 (Breyer, J., concurring).

[8] See, e.g., Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204 (1977) (“[T]he relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation . . . became the central concern of the inquiry into personal jurisdiction.”); Helicopteros Nacionales De Colombia v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 n.8 (1984) (“It has been said that when a State exercises personal jurisdiction over a defendant in a suit arising out of or related to the defendant’s contacts with the forum, the State is exercising ‘specific jurisdiction’ over the defendant.”).

[9] See, e.g., Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 920–21 (2011) (holding that there was no personal jurisdiction in North Carolina, as the injury occurred in France and the products that caused the injury were made in Europe); Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Super. Ct., 137 S. Ct. 1773, 1781 (2017) (holding that the defendant was not subject to personal jurisdiction in California with respect to out-of-state plaintiffs who were prescribed medications in their home state, consumed the medications in their home state, and were injured by the medications in their home state).

[10] World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson provides a suitable fact pattern, but the carmaker in that case did not contest jurisdiction in the forum state. See World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 288–90 (1980); see also Robinson v. Audi Nsu Auto Union Aktiengesellschaft, 739 F.2d 1481, 1483 (10th Cir. 1984).

[11] Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 141 S. Ct. 1017, 1022 (2021).

[12] Id. at 1023.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 1024.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 1026.

[17] See, e.g., Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 595 (1991); J. McIntyre Mach., Ltd. v. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873, 877 (2011); Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011); Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Super. Ct., 137 S. Ct. 1773, 1781 (2017); see also Kimberly Wehle, The Supreme Court Isn’t as Conservative as You Think, Politico (Apr. 1, 2021, 8:21 PM), https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/04/01/the-supreme-court-isnt-as-conservative-as-you-think-478854.

[18] Transcript of Oral Argument at 38, Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 141 S. Ct. 1017 (2021) (No. 19-368), https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2020/19-368_m648.pdf.

[19] Id. at 56.

[20] Id. at 39 (posing a hypothetical in which a retired man from Maine sells decoys on the Internet).

[21] Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 141 S. Ct. 1017, 1028 n.4 (2011).

[22] Id. at 1034 (Gorsuch, J., concurring); see also Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316–17 (1945) (establishing the minimum contacts standard).

[23] Ford Motor Co., 141 S. Ct. at 1039 (Gorsuch, J., concurring).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: