Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion unanimously ruling against Ford in a product liability lawsuit. The ruling will significantly impact a Florida product liability accident victim’s ability to file a lawsuit in the state. The case arose when a woman died when her vehicle’s tread separated, and the car spun and rolled into a ditch. The other claim involved a passenger who suffered brain damage when the vehicle’s airbag failed to deploy. In response to the plaintiffs’ lawsuits, Ford argued that the states hearing the cases did not maintain jurisdiction because the cars in the incident were not designed, manufactured or initially sold in the state. The auto manufacturer maintained that allowing the cases to be heard in those forums upended their ability to know where and under what circumstances accident victims may sue them.
Historically, Florida product liability accident victims face challenges in establishing where to sue. Generally, Florida plaintiffs cannot sue a negligent company in any state that the plaintiff chooses. The law provides that plaintiffs must establish that the Court has jurisdiction over the case. Jurisdiction inquiries typically involve examining whether the company maintains “minimum contacts” with Florida and if they “purposefully availed” themselves of the state’s privileges. Courts will also look to whether hearing a lawsuit in the state comports with theories of “fair play and substantial justice.” These analyses are fact-specific and require the experience of an attorney well-versed in these complex jurisdictional issues.
In the recent case, the Supreme Court Justices opined that Ford purposefully availed itself of the privileges of conducting activities in both states involved in the lawsuit. The law does not require plaintiffs to establish a causal link between where the company sold the car and where they designed or manufactured it. Specific jurisdiction occurs in situations when a company encourages a market for a product in the forum state. In this case, the automaker advertises and markets its products in the forum states and cultivates relationships between the vehicle owners. The Court found that the defendant systemically fostered a relationship between consumers and the vehicles involved in the accidents. As such, there is a relationship between Ford, the states, and the litigation. This finding will undoubtedly result in a drastic change in the legal landscape regarding product liability lawsuits involving vehicles.