Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court took an important step to safeguard the due process rights of manufacturers by ruling 8-1 in BNSF v. Tyrrell affirming that passing through a state is not sufficient to allow you to be sued there.
Observers of the U.S. tort system, by far the most expensive lawsuit system in the world, are well aware that plaintiffs go to great lengths to have their cases heard in particular jurisdictions known to be plaintiff-friendly and hostile to outsiders—especially corporations. This phenomenon, sometimes known as litigation tourism, underlay a case brought against BNSF Railway Company in Montana state court.
The case involved two separate workplace injury claims against BNSF under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. One employee, a resident of North Dakota, was injured in Washington State. A second plaintiff, a South Dakota resident and the daughter of a deceased employee, alleged injury based in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. The plaintiffs chose to sue BNSF in Montana, despite the fact that they did not live there, had never worked there and were not injured there. The Montana Supreme Court held that BNSF was subject to the general jurisdiction of the Montana courts because it could be “found” there since its trains run through the state.
Relying on a case decided in 2014 involving claims against Daimler AG brought in California for injuries and activities that occurred in Argentina, the Supreme Court held that simply running your trains through a state, without any other connection, is insufficient under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to allow a court to exercise jurisdiction over a defendant—i.e., to allow a defendant to be sued there.
Recognizing the importance of this case, the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action (MCLA) filed amicus briefs in this case, both encouraging the court to take the case as well as arguing that the case should be decided in favor of BNSF. The team here at the MCLA applauds this result, which brings a measure of rationality and predictability to our often irrational state tort system, and we salute BNSF for fighting the case all the way to the highest court in the land and making some good law for all manufacturers along the way.
Senior Vice President and General Counsel at National Association of Manufacturers
Linda Kelly is the senior vice president and general counsel at the NAM. In addition to handling NAM’s organizational legal compliance, Ms. Kelly also oversees the work of the NAM’s Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action, directing the NAM’s litigation strategy in support of its policy objectives. Ms. Kelly is a seasoned Washington policy lawyer with more than 20 years of experience working on a diverse array of legal and public policy issues at the state, federal and international levels.
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