Illinois 5th District Rules on Personal Jurisdiction
On July 12, 2018, in an unpublished opinion, the Illinois 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the Madison County Court, which had denied Ford Motor Company’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction in an asbestos case.
In Jeffs v. Ford Motor Company, the plaintiff sued Ford, a Michigan-based company, for exposure to asbestos that allegedly caused the death of her husband based on his work at a Ford plant in Michigan. Despite the fact that Ford is based in Michigan and all exposures against Ford occurred there, the plaintiff filed suit against Ford and other defendants in Madison County, Illinois.
Ford moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction, on the basis that the case had no relationship to Illinois and that Ford is neither headquartered, nor incorporated in Illinois. The trial court in Madison County, Illinois denied the motion to dismiss, finding that Illinois had general jurisdiction over Ford based on its finding that Ford conducts “substantial, not de minimums, business in Illinois.” The trial court further found that exercising general jurisdiction over Ford would comport with the notions of fair play and substantial justice because Ford consented to the jurisdiction through its actions. The court cited Ford’s history of defendant asbestos personal injury cases, its status as an authorized and licensed business in Illinois since 1922, the 156 dealerships Ford operated in the State of Illinois, and to Ford’s sales, ownership of real property, and employment of Illinois residents as the basis for its ruling. Ford filed a petition for leave to appeal, which was denied by the trial court but allowed by the Illinois Supreme Court. The issues considered by the Court of Appeals were: (1) whether Ford is at home in the state of Illinois such that Illinois may exercise personal jurisdiction over it and (2) whether Ford validly consented to being subject to general personal jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District, answered “no” to both questions presented, reversing the trial court’s ruling. First, the court found that Ford did not consent to jurisdiction simply by maintaining a registered agent in Illinois, citing to the recently decided case of Aspen American Insurance Co. v. Interstate Warehousing, Inc. Second, the court held that because Ford’s connections with Illinois did not rise to the level of an “exceptional circumstances” for jurisdiction, beyond state of incorporation or principal place of business, Ford is not “at home” in Illinois. Therefore, any exercise of general jurisdiction would violate due process.
With this decision, the 5th District joins the U.S. Supreme Court and the growing majority of courts nationwide that have severely limited the scope of personal jurisdiction and how it is applied to out-of-state defendants. Located in the 5th District, Madison County has long been a preferred destination for asbestos and toxic tort plaintiffs’ attorneys nationwide. While it remains to be seen how Jeffs will affect case filings there, this decision further buttresses the growing national and Illinois case law on the issue of personal jurisdiction. While this decision cannot be cited as precedent, the arguments should be raised by out-of-state defendants at the earliest possible opportunity to pursue the objection.