Where No Forum Contacts “Relate To” Claims at Issue, Ninth Circuit Affirms Dismissal for Lack of Specific Personal Jurisdiction


Specific personal jurisdiction can be a very straightforward concept.  If a plaintiff claims to have been injured by a product that the defendant itself sold directly to plaintiff at a store within the forum state, disputes over specific personal jurisdiction would be rare.  Other cases can be closer calls, particularly when a defendant has extensive contacts within a forum but none of them are causally related to the plaintiff’s claims.  At what point does a defendant’s purposeful availment of a forum cease to be “related to” a plaintiff’s claims?  The Ninth Circuit offered some helpful guidance on that issue in its decision in Yamashita v. LG Chem, Ltd., — F.4th —, 2023 WL 2374776 (9th Cir. Mar. 6, 2023).

Plaintiff in Yamashita was a Hawaii resident who brought a personal injury/products liability suit in Hawaii state court.  The suit named two defendants.  The first was a South Korean company that manufactured a battery that Plaintiff alleged had caused him injury.  The second, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of the South Korean company, was a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Georgia.  It did not manufacture the product at issue but distributed it within the United States.  Both defendants denied ever selling the product directly to individual consumers.  The defendants removed the case to the District Court for the District of Hawaii and moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.  The district court granted the motion, and Plaintiff appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first noted that, because neither defendant was “at home” in Hawaii, the district court could not exercise general personal jurisdiction.  To determine whether specific personal jurisdiction applied, the Ninth Circuit considered the Supreme Court’s recent guidance in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Jud. Dist., 141 S. Ct. 1017, 1026 (2021).  Under Ford, a court has specific personal jurisdiction where a defendant “takes some act by which it purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State” and the claims at issue “arise out of or relate to” the defendant’s forum contacts.  The Ninth Circuit interpreted Ford to hold that “arise out of” and “relate to” are alternatives and that, although but-for causation is critical to a claim “arising out of” a defendant’s forum contacts, specific personal jurisdiction can exist for a claim “relating to” forum contacts even without causation.  However, the Ninth Circuit reiterated Ford’s caution that “relate to” “does not mean anything goes.”  Relatedness still “requires a close connection between the contacts and injury.”

Plaintiff alleged that defendants had four types of relevant forum contacts: (1) both defendants shipped products, some containing batteries, through the port of Honolulu; (2) one defendant sold residential solar batteries in Hawaii; (3) various consumer products sold in Hawaii contained the defendants’ batteries; and (4) a third-party website sold the defendants’ batteries online.  The Ninth Circuit determined that, although the shipment of products through Honolulu constituted purposeful availment, the record did not show whether the battery at issue was included in any of those shipments. Similarly, the Ninth Circuit deemed the sale of residential solar batteries in Hawaii to be purposeful availment but noted that those batteries were not the products at issue. Because neither the port shipments nor the sale of solar batteries had anything to do with Hawaii residents’ acquisition of the batteries at issue, Plaintiff’s claims neither “arose out of” nor “related to” those forum contacts

The Ninth Circuit held that the last two asserted forum contacts did not even amount to purposeful availment. Although Plaintiff alleged that defendants’ batteries appeared in consumer products that were sold in Hawaii, the record did not show that defendants had directed their batteries to Hawaii by way of those products.  As to the third-party website that allegedly sold the battery at issue, the defendants denied that they authorized third-party sales of lithium-ion batteries.  Even assuming that they had authorized such sales, the record failed to show that the defendants targeted Hawaii specifically.  As a result, this allegation did not demonstrate purposeful availment, either.

Plaintiff argued that the district court erred in denying jurisdictional discovery on three specific bases.  First, he sought evidence of contractual agreements requiring manufacturers of battery-containing products to sell those products in Hawaii.  But, because Plaintiff had obtained the battery in question as a stand-alone product, the Ninth Circuit held that his claim would not “relate to” the sale of battery-containing products into Hawaii even if defendants had directed such sales.  Second, Plaintiff sought evidence suggesting that the battery he had obtained was removed from a battery-containing product and resold to him as a stand-alone product.  But, because he offered no evidence that batteries removed in that manner were ever sold commercially, the Ninth Circuit deemed his theory speculative and affirmed the district court’s denial.  Finally, Plaintiff sought evidence that defendants had sold the batteries at issue to third-party distributors specifically for sale into the Hawaiian market.  However, both defendants had submitted declarations denying the existence of any such arrangements.  As the Ninth Circuit noted, in the context of a motion for jurisdictional discovery, “bare allegations are trumped by sworn statements to the contrary.”  Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of jurisdictional discovery.

Yamashita provides some clarity on what “relate to” actually means in practice.  Even if but-for causation is not an absolute prerequisite for specific personal jurisdiction, claims that a defendant purposefully availed itself of a market in ways that do not involve the product at issue still are not enough.  Nor are claims that a defendant directed the product at issue to a specific market as a component of another product, if the plaintiff did not obtain the product at issue from that source.  As the Ninth Circuit aptly put it: “Ford modified but did not abolish the requirement that a claim must arise out of or relate to a forum contact in order for a court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction.”

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About the Author: Eric M. Friedman

Eric Friedman guides clients through all stages of product liability litigation, particularly working with expert witnesses to present the science behind clients' products. By leaning on his pre-law history as a biochemist, he is able to identify key arguments for and against clients and craft winning strategies for both motion practice and trial.

About the Author: Emilie Keuntjes Erickson

Emilie Erickson defends product liability and mass tort clients, with a focus on makers of medical devices and orthopedic implants. Besides drafting pleadings, briefs, discovery requests and responses, and other court documents and legal memoranda, Emilie is an integral part of several teams for complex multidistrict litigations (MDLs).

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