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Ford Motor v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court: Judicial Accessibility for Plaintiffs

Can an auto accident victim sue a car manufacturer in the state where the accident occurred?

Or would the car manufacturer need to have directly designed, manufactured, advertised or initially sold that specific car in that state to be liable for suit there?

At the heart of these questions lies a debate over where plaintiffs should be able to sue defendants, and why. The plaintiffs in Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, argued Wednesday morning at the Supreme Court (audio here), had experienced severe injuries while in Ford vehicles. One got brain damage after the Ford airbag failed to deploy on impact, and the other (represented by their estate) died after their Ford vehicle lost stability and rolled upside down in a ditch.

The plaintiffs brought negligence and product liability claims against Ford in Montana and Minnesota, where they live, and the accidents occurred. But Ford moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims because plaintiffs had bought their cars used; though the plaintiffs had bought their cars in Montana and Minnesota, the cars had originally been sold by Ford elsewhere.

Both the Minnesota and Montana Supreme Courts found jurisdiction over Ford was proper because the plaintiffs’ claims relate to Ford’s activities in advertising, selling and servicing vehicles in those states. Ford appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that jurisdiction must be linked to Ford’s actions around the specific cars at issue.

The bulk of oral argument was focused on fleshing out how fair each test would be to litigants. The justices discussed whether a plaintiff would need to prove that they were personally influenced by Ford’s advertisements, how the tests may affect large companies versus small merchants, and how component parts like defective aftermarket air bags would come into play.

These discussions steered towards the judicial venues that would remain open to plaintiffs if the court were to accept Ford’s test. Justice Kagan made this question clear in her hypothetical to petitioner’s counsel:

“I buy an Apple computer in New York, I move in California, the computer catches on fires, I get injured in California, and I get hurt. Are you saying that I could sue in New York, where I bought the Apple computer, but I could not sue in California, where I live, and the injury took place?”

Or as Justice Gorsuch asked bluntly, “What does due process require?”

Although the justices seemed skeptical the administrability of Ford’s test at oral arguments, it was unclear how the court would rule.

Other than a smooth, short recess to ensure that respondent’s audio was working prior to his opening statement, Ford Motor Co. is further evidence of successful livestreaming of oral arguments at the Supreme Court.

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