Any day now, the Supreme Court will issue an opinion on a case that has widespread implications for consumer rights and corporate accountability. While the issues under consideration may sound esoteric (specific personal jurisdiction and product liability), the stakes are high: depending on how the Court rules, you may lose the right to sue a corporation in the courts of your own state.
The case, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, arose from two tragic vehicle crashes. In 2015, Markkaya Jean Gullett died when a tire on her Ford Explorer detreaded and rolled over. That same year, Adam Bandemer’s airbag failed to deploy while he was a passenger in a Crown Victoria, causing him to suffer a permanent brain injury.
However, the case is not about the automaker’s responsibility for defects that led to these tragedies. Rather, it considers Ford’s contention that consumers should be barred from suing the corporation from their home states in the first place.
Although Mrs. Gullett lived in Montana, bought her vehicle used in Montana, and the crash that took her life occurred in Montana, Ford argues that her estate has no right to sue in Montana, and that the more appropriate jurisdiction would be Washington. The reason? The Explorer was first sold in Washington. Huh? Likewise, Ford claims Mr. Bandemer cannot bring suit in his home state of Minnesota for injuries suffered in Minnesota involving a car purchased in Minnesota because an earlier owner of the car had purchased it in South Dakota. Through this bizarre logic, he would be forced to bring his claim in a South Dakota court.
According to this reasoning, even though the automaker sells identical vehicles, advertises, and maintains a network of dealerships and repair shops in both Montana and Minnesota, and the crashes occurred in those states, these factors are unimportant. Ford’s position is that anyone who suffers injuries and wishes to sue the automaker should have to relocate to the state where the vehicle was first sold, or two other alternatives: the state where the vehicle was manufactured, or to Delaware, where Ford is incorporated. In sports terms, consumers get nothing but away games, while Ford benefits from a permanent home-field advantage.
Here is what Ford proposes: John, a resident of Maine, buys a used vehicle in Maine that was sold new in Arizona two years before. He is injured in Maine, which makes him consider suing the manufacturer. Meanwhile, Mary, in Arizona, buys a used vehicle in Arizona that was first sold new in Maine. A wreck in Arizona compels her to file a lawsuit as well. Ford argues that John and Mary should each have to travel thousands of miles and swap locations in order to have their day in court, even though Ford sells identical models in each of their states, and each of them bought, drove, and suffered injuries in their Ford vehicles exclusively in their home state.
The automaker would face an identical scenario: defending itself in one Arizona court and in one Maine court. But by placing massive financial and logistical burdens on each prospective plaintiff, not to mention any potential witnesses, Ford will make it far more difficult for individual consumers to ever have their day in court, discouraging meritorious lawsuits, and tipping the scales of justice in its favor. Many (if not most) consumers will decline to exercise their legal rights in the face of such additional expense and inconvenience. Ford stands to make serious money by gaming the system, while shielding itself from accountability.
For several decades, corporations, realizing they are unlikely to win in court, have found the easiest and cheapest way they can prevail is by preventing people from accessing our court system in the first place. The Supreme Court, for its part, has done precious little to stop them, as we have seen through the Court’s acceptance of anti-consumer practices such as class-action waivers and forced arbitration.
But even though the Supreme Court has failed to overturn a pro-corporate lower court ruling in over four years, it has been relatively evenhanded when it comes to upholding lower court victories by workers or consumers (which is the case here).
In a better world, Ford would realize that the surest path to fewer product liability cases will come from committing to improving its vehicle quality and handling safety defects responsibly, rather than attempting to manipulate the judicial process. Although we sorely miss Justice Ginsburg, who had most consistently stood up to big business on behalf of ordinary citizens, we need the Court to show that it remains capable of properly balancing the interests of health and safety against corporate profitability.
Joe Ridout is Director of Advocacy and Outreach for Knight Law Group.