Personal Jurisdiction - General Jurisdiction

Harvard Law Review, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Personal Jurisdiction - General Jurisdiction


The law of personal jurisdiction, often regarded as "rather muddled," (1) was clarified in recent years with respect to general jurisdiction by Justice Ginsburg's pathbreaking decision in Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown. (2) That decision declared that a court may only assert general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations where "their affiliations with the [forum] State are so 'continuous and systematic' as to render them essentially at home" there. (3) Last Term, in Daimler AG v. Bauman, (4) the Supreme Court clarified Goodyear by holding that Daimler AG (Daimler), a German public stock company, could not be subject to California's general jurisdiction in a suit filed by Argentine plaintiffs over events occurring on Argentine soil because Daimler was not "at home" in California, (5) even assuming that the contacts of its U.S. subsidiary could be imputed to it on an agency theory. Although some have viewed Daimler as in keeping with a series of recent Court decisions limiting plaintiffs' access to the courts, closer examination reveals that Justice Ginsburg continues to apply a theory of personal jurisdiction, derived from the seminal work of Professors Arthur von Mehren and Donald Trautman (6) and initially introduced in Goodyear and her dissent in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, that focuses fundamentally on fairness to both litigants.

In 2004, twenty-two Argentine residents filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California against Daimler, a German company headquartered in Stuttgart, which manufactures Mercedes-Benz vehicles in Germany. (8) The plaintiffs were former workers and relatives of former workers at the Gonzalez-Catan plant of Mercedes-Benz Argentina (MB Argentina), a wholly owned subsidiary of Daimler's predecessor in interest. (9) The complaint alleged that during Argentina's 1976-1983 "Dirty War," MB Argentina collaborated with state security forces to kidnap, detain, torture, and kill plant workers, including the plaintiffs and their relatives, whom MB Argentina suspected of being union agitators. (10) The plaintiffs brought suit under various state, federal, and international laws. (11)

Daimler moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. (12) The plaintiffs conceded that the District Court lacked specific jurisdiction over Daimler since the plaintiffs' claims did not arise out of or relate to Daimler's purported activity in California but argued that general jurisdiction could be exercised because of the California contacts of either Daimler or Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA), a wholly owned subsidiary of Daimler. (13)

The District Court granted Daimler's motion to dismiss. (14) Judge Whyte first confirmed his tentative ruling (15) that Daimler itself lacked sufficient contacts with California for the court to exercise general jurisdiction. (16) He next found that under the "agency" test, (17) MBUSA's activities could not be imputed to Daimler for the purpose of establishing personal jurisdiction over Daimler. (18) However, Judge Whyte "[did] not need to reach this conclusion": personal jurisdiction could not be exercised in any case because Argentina and Germany were adequate alternative fora. (19)

The Ninth Circuit initially affirmed (20) with Judge Reinhardt dissenting. (21) The same Ninth Circuit panel granted rehearing and vacated its opinion nine months later. (22) The panel then reversed. Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Reinhardt expounded on the reasoning of his previous dissent. (24) One of the key factors motivating Judge Reinhardt's analysis seemed to be a desire to hold multinational companies responsible for human rights abuses. (25) The Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc over the dissent of eight judges. (26)

The Supreme Court reversed. (27) Writing for the Court, Justice Ginsburg (28) ruled that California could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Daimler. (29) Justice Ginsburg did not rule on the agency question that had preoccupied the lower courts. …

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