One of the first steps that any plaintiff must take when bringing a personal injury claim is to determine where the lawsuit should be filed. Many personal injury claims arise between two individuals, such as two drivers of vehicles that collide. In these situations, it is relatively easy to determine the correct court, since both individuals will likely live in the same state. However, sometimes personal injury and product liability claims involve large corporations. While these corporations may have products that reach the state where the injury occurs, they may not have offices or factories in that state, or they may be incorporated in a different state. In these circumstances, plaintiffs must consider, with the help of their attorney, more complicated personal jurisdiction requirements, which determine where a lawsuit can properly be brought. A recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia took a look at a victim’s efforts to bring a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company in the state.
In Ford Motor Co. v. Wellman, Mr. Wellman brought claims against Ford Motor Company for the death of his son, Jarrod Wellman. Jarrod was killed in a single-vehicle roll-over crash that occurred in West Virginia. During the crash, his seatbelt improperly released, and the roof was crushed, leading to Jarrod’s ejection and death due to trauma. The car that killed Jarrod, a Ford Explorer, was manufactured in Kentucky but sold to automotive groups in West Virginia. On this basis, Mr. Wellman filed suit in West Virginia against Ford. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Ford filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Without allowing Mr. Wellman time to respond, the trial court denied the motion without explanation. Ford filed a second motion, requesting that the trial court issue findings of fact and conclusions of law so that it could appeal the order. Again, without allowing Mr. Wellman to present an argument in his favor, the trial court issued its findings. Ford then sought a writ of prohibition with the Supreme Court to prohibit the trial court from enforcing the order.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by attempting to determine possible bases for personal jurisdiction over Ford. First, it took a look at West Virginia’s long-arm statutes. These statutes allow West Virginia to assert jurisdiction, even over nonresidents, when the nonresident contracts to conduct business in the state or manufactures defective products that are sold in the state. While the Supreme Court held that Mr. Wellman’s allegations appeared to fall within West Virginia’s long arm statutes, it noted that such jurisdiction also had to be fair to Ford by respecting its due process rights, which required that Ford have minimum contacts with the state. These laws prevent corporations from being forced into litigation in states with which they have no real connection. Here, the Supreme Court held that the trial court had failed to allow the parties to sufficiently argue the question of whether minimum contacts existed because it did not allow for adequate briefing on the issue, or a hearing to discuss the question. Accordingly, there was an insufficient record for the Supreme Court to determine whether minimum contacts and personal jurisdiction existed.
Importantly, the Supreme Court affirmed prior holdings that it is possible to have personal jurisdiction over a nonresident corporation when the corporation places its goods into the stream of commerce. This is a position that has been rejected by other state courts, but it now continues to be good law in West Virginia. However, without proper development of the record at the trial court level, the Supreme Court held that it simply could not determine whether such a law actually applied to the facts of this case or whether Ford could defeat personal jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Supreme Court granted the writ of prohibition, but it remanded the proceedings back to the trial court so that further facts could be gathered and developed in order to allow the trial court to make an informed decision as to personal jurisdiction.
As this case illustrates, determining the proper place to bring a lawsuit can be very complicated when corporations are involved. At the Wolfe Law Firm, our West Virginia car accident lawyers have helped many West Virginia residents determine whether their lawsuit may be properly brought within the state, and whether state or federal court is required. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the Wolfe Law Firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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