United States: W.D. Pennsylvania Dismisses Third-Party Complaint For Lack Of Personal Jurisdiction

By now, the reinvigorated limits on personal jurisdiction, courtesy of the SCOTUS decisions in Bauman and BMS, are old hat. No longer can defendants be dragged into plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions unless they are either at home in such jurisdictions or actually did something relating to a colorable claim there. So goodbye to litigation tourists suing companies lacking the requisite connection to the forum. To borrow an unfortunate phrase of the moment, courts "send them back" to where they came from. It should not be a hardship for the plaintiffs to file their lawsuit back home. Even if there are multiple defendants, it is easy enough for the plaintiffs to file a lawsuit where they live, assuming that is where the injury occurred. Easy, right?

Not all cases are so simple. Every once in a while, we get a personal jurisdiction case that presents a new angle on the issue. In Singleton v. Pharmatech, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121369 (W.D. Pa. July 22, 2019), the plaintiffs sued several defendants, alleging that they manufactured or sold a medication that was contaminated, thereby causing the death of the plaintiffs' child. These plaintiffs were not litigation tourists. These plaintiffs were not attempting to sue a defendant over whom the court lacked jurisdiction. There was no personal jurisdiction issue in sight.

Or at least there wasn't such an issue until one of the defendants asserted negligence/contribution claims against a Florida water company in a third party complaint. The defendant was essentially saying that any contamination wasn't its fault, but was the fault of its water supplier. The Florida water company moved to dismiss on the grounds that the Western District of Pennsylvania lacked personal jurisdiction over it in this case. The Florida water company made an initial showing that it was a Florida-based limited liability company, owned by Florida citizens, with a principal place of business in Florida. Accordingly, there was no basis for general personal jurisdiction. Nor was there any basis for specific personal jurisdiction over the third-party defendant, because the Florida water company said it conducted no business outside Florida, let alone in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The third-party plaintiff (which, remember, was a defendant in the wrongful death tort suit) could muster no facts to contradict the Florida water company's claim that it never strayed outside the Sunshine State. The absence of such facts meant that the third-party plaintiff could not carry its burden of showing personal jurisdiction.

All that the third-party plaintiff had was a motion for jurisdictional discovery. What was it hoping to discover? It suggested that the Florida water company might have been aware that it was supplying water to a company (one of the defendants) that would be selling its products outside Florida's borders. That bit of speculation carried no water in this case. The Singleton court was bound by Third Circuit Law, which has expressly rejected the "stream of commerce" theory of personal jurisdiction. The factual record showed that the Florida water company had not "purposefully availed itself or engaged in any targeted business activities directed" to the Western District of Pennsylvania. The requested jurisdictional discovery was nothing more than a "fishing expedition." Accordingly, the Singleton court dismissed the third-party complaint against the Florida company.

It is hard to find fault with the court's reasoning. What it means, of course, is that not all the claims, third-party claims, etc. in this case will be resolved in one neat package. But whoever said that litigation must always be neat? Or easy? Or even efficient?

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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