The Florida Second District Court of Appeal recently reversed a trial court's determination that it had jurisdiction over Robinson Helicopter Company (“Robinson”), a California corporation with its only place of business in California, in connection with a fatal emergency landing of an R-44 helicopter near Tampa, Florida. The accident took place after a Florida maintenance facility's unsuccessful efforts to repair the helicopter's engine. In response to telephonic outreach to Robinson from the Florida maintenance facility after a loss of engine power on a prior flight, Robinson had provided the Florida-based maintenance facility with instructions for diagnosing and repairing the helicopter, and with replacement parts to potentially fix the engine problem.

The decedent's Estate filed an action against Robinson, the Florida-based maintenance facility, and other defendants. Against Robinson, the Estate asserted claims for strict liability and negligence “based on a defective air inlet duct which caused the engine failure as well as a separate negligence claim for failing to properly diagnose, repair, and transport the helicopter.”

In response to Robinson's motion to dismiss, the trial court determined “that sufficient jurisdiction facts existed to bring the action within the ambit of [Florida's] long-arm statute and to establish the constitutionally required minimum contacts.” On appeal and following a de novo review, the Court of Appeal applied Florida's two-part test to determine whether personal jurisdiction existed over the non-resident defendant Robinson, disagreed with both of the trial court's determinations after applying that test, and ordered the dismissal of Robinson.

Long arm statute analysis. Florida's long arm statute, as is common in many states, has a provision requiring that a tort be committed in Florida in order for there to be specific personal jurisdiction. In other words, this analysis focuses on where the tortious conduct occurred, not on where the plaintiff ultimately suffered damages. The court found that in an ordinary negligence action (as opposed to in actions involving fraud, slander, or intentional torts, in which a different rule applies in Florida), a non-resident's telephonic communications into the state were not sufficient to constitute a tort committed within the state of Florida by Robinson. 

Constitutional due process clause analysis. To establish minimum contacts of Robinson with Florida, the Estate needed to show that Robinson's contacts with Florida: “(1) are related to the plaintiff's cause of action or have given rise to it, (2) involve some act by which [Robinson] has purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within [Florida], and (3) must be such that [Robinson] should reasonably anticipate being haled into court [in Florida].” 

The court found that the circumstances here were much different from those addressed by the US Supreme Court in its recent Ford Motor Company v Montana Eighth Judicial District Court decision. First, in contrast to Ford in that case, Robinson did not concede that it did substantial business in Florida. Second, the court stated that “Robinson Helicopter Company is no Ford Motor Company” – finding that it “is a comparatively small company with a single facility in California which produced fewer than fifty helicopters in 2020.” In addition, the court found important that there was “no indication that Robinson engages in any targeted advertising in Florida,” and that “while Robinson does maintain a list of ‘authorized' dealers and service centers in various states, including Florida, those businesses are separate entities” and “Robinson itself has no employees, agents, or representatives in [Florida].” Finally, the court noted that “while the particular aircraft involved in this case malfunctioned and caused injury within Florida, it had only been brought into [Florida] after [its owner] had purchased it from the dealer in Indiana.”

Ultimately, the court found that Robinson did not direct the accident helicopter into Florida, that Robinson had not continuously exploited the Florida market such that it must reasonably anticipate being haled into court there, and that the few contacts which Robinson had with Florida related to this accident were created not by Robinson, but instead by the plaintiff's decedent and by the Florida-based maintenance facility which had reached out to Robinson for advice in the repair of the R-44 helicopter.

Robinson Helicopter Co. v. Gangapersaud, 2022 Fla. App. LEXIS 4257 (Fla. Ct. App. June 22, 2022)

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