Nicholas P. Vari is a Partner in the Pittsburgh, PA office of K&L Gates LLP.
In a decision issued late last fall with sweeping implications for civil litigation in Pennsylvania, Hammons v. Ethicon, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania analyzed the contours of specific personal jurisdiction under a fact pattern resembling those of recent U.S. Supreme Court precedents. The court considered whether a New Jersey-resident corporation could be sued in a Pennsylvania state court by an Indiana resident who was allegedly injured in Indiana by the defendant’s medical device, because the defendant contracted with a Pennsylvania company to assemble a component of that product. In holding that personal jurisdiction was present under those circumstances, the court appeared to move away from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that required a specific nexus between the defendant, the jurisdiction, and the complained-of conduct. Instead, the Hammons court advanced a policy of broadening the scope of specific personal jurisdiction to protect the prospect of state-court nationwide mass actions, in accordance with the lone dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court decision.
In Hammons, an Indiana resident filed a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, alleging that she was injured by a medical device sold by defendant, a New Jersey corporation headquartered in New Jersey. Plaintiff received the medical device in Indiana, and she was treated for her injuries in Indiana and Kentucky. Plaintiff limited her strict liability claims to failure to warn and design defect. Defendant filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss this case on personal jurisdiction grounds. At that time, the lone association between the action and Pennsylvania that plaintiff presented was that the defendant had contracted with a Pennsylvania entity to weave a mesh product from a proprietary filament that the defendant provided to the Pennsylvania assembler. The trial court ultimately denied defendant’s preliminary objections based on a lack of personal jurisdiction, and the matter proceeded to a jury trial, at which the jury awarded plaintiff $5.5M.
On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, an intermediate-level court of appeal, analyzed the facts of Hammons against the backdrop of Bristol-Myers Squibb. The Superior Court found that even though the defendant made the design and warning decisions that formed the bases of plaintiff’s strict liability claims in New Jersey and/or France, the defendant’s act of contracting with a Pennsylvania entity to manufacture a component, combined with evidence presented at trial of defendant’s retention of a Pennsylvania-based physician in connection with the marketing of the medical device, met Bristol-Myers’s requirement of “suit-related conduct” in the forum state.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania accepted allocatur to resolve the personal jurisdiction issue. In accordance with Bristol-Myers, defendant argued that the assembly process that took place in Pennsylvania was not sufficiently connected to plaintiff’s design-defect or failure-to-warn claims to support the imposition of personal jurisdiction by a Pennsylvania court. Rather, the design and other decisions on which plaintiff’s claims were based occurred in New Jersey and France, not in Pennsylvania, so the requisite nexus between the forum, the defendant, and the claim as required by Bristol-Myers was lacking. In response, plaintiff argued that the factual link between her claims and the defendant’s conduct in Pennsylvania met the Bristol-Myers standard.
The Hammons court’s analysis began with an overview of the U.S. Supreme Court’s personal jurisdiction jurisprudence dating back to the seminal case of International Shoe Co. v State of Washington, Office of Unemployment Compensation and Placement. After quickly concluding that there was no basis for imposing general personal jurisdiction over the New Jersey defendant in Pennsylvania, the Court moved on to assess the more nuanced issue of specific personal jurisdiction, limiting its review to the defendant’s contracts with the Pennsylvania-based mesh assembler.
After noting International Shoe’s “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” standard that has framed the Supreme Court’s personal jurisdiction jurisprudence for decades, the Hammons court moved on to a detailed analysis of Bristol-Myers. It dismissed defendant’s interpretation of Bristol-Myers specific nexus language as being something that could be “excerpted from” that decision, but which, in the Hammons Court’s view, represented an unduly narrow interpretation of the High Court’s personal jurisdiction jurisprudence. To support its conclusion, the court quoted Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent from the 8-1 majority opinion in Bristol-Myers, in which Justice Sotomayor expressed concern that, if interpreted strictly, the specific-nexus test of Bristol-Myers threatened the ongoing viability of “a nationwide mass action in state court against defendants who are ‘at home’ in different states” Based largely on that lone dissent in Bristol-Myers, a 6-1 majority of the Pennsylvania justices accepted a “broader view of the contact required for specific personal jurisdiction,” and affirmed the lower court ruling imposing personal jurisdiction.
In the lone dissent in Hammons, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor stated succinctly that a single-justice dissent to an 8-1 Supreme Court decision does not support a departure from the clear import of the majority decision. Accordingly, Chief Justice Saylor noted that Hammons should have applied Bristol-Myers’s requirement of “a connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue” (emphasis supplied), which would have led to a ruling against imposing personal jurisdiction.
At its core, the Hammons decision represents a policy in favor of loosening Bristol-Myers’s nexus requirement to advance the prospect of state-court mass actions involving claimants from across the United States. Nevertheless, because a viable alternative exists for mass-tort plaintiffs within the federal court rules for multidistrict litigation, there does not appear to be a pressing need to loosen due-process standards grounded in “fundamental fairness” to advance certain litigants’ possible preferences for state court forums. Instead, the better answer here appears to be to preserve the existing tests for personal jurisdiction, and to encourage plaintiffs to use established federal court mechanisms to conduct mass litigation.
 In a concurring opinion, Justice Christine Donahue stated that the majority correctly did not consider evidence first asserted at trial when resolving the personal jurisdiction issue.