Challenging personal jurisdiction in Maryland asbestos litigation following recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions

Recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions limiting personal jurisdiction have been met with enthusiasm by defendants in asbestos litigation where forum shopping by plaintiffs' counsel is common and defendants are sued in massive amounts of cases in multiple jurisdictions. Baltimore City, for example, ranked second in 2017 in total annual asbestos claim filings in the United States, only behind Madison County, Illinois. Asbestos Litigation: 2017 Year in Review, KCIC Industry Report (2018). Indeed, the issue of a so-called backlog of an estimated 30,000 asbestos cases and how to address them has been an issue plaguing Maryland courts and legislators. See, O'Brien, John, "Baltimore Backlog: Angelos Firm Not Pursuing Trials for Asbestos Clients, Lawmakers Told," Forbes (October 17, 2017).


In Baltimore, most cases are filed using a "short-form complaint" where very little information is provided as to how the plaintiff was exposed to asbestos. Consequently, defendants are often sued en masse in template-style form complaints lacking specific facts as to how a defendant's product is alleged to have caused the claimant injury. Many of these defendants are foreign corporations, and thus, challenging personal jurisdiction should be considered, particularly in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions.


As a brief background, personal jurisdiction may be divided into two categories: specific (or "case-linked") jurisdiction where the cause of action arises out of or relates to the defendant's conduct in the state and general (or "all purpose") jurisdiction where the defendant's contacts in the state are so pervasive rendering it subject to suit in the state. The focus of opinions by the Court over the last decade has been on general jurisdiction. In Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117 (2014), the Court set a high bar for the exercise of general jurisdiction over a non-resident corporation, holding that the exercise of general jurisdiction over a corporation that is neither formed under the laws of the forum state nor maintains its principal place of business there should be rare.


Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California, 137 S. Ct. 1772 (2017) and BNSF Ry. Co. v. Tyrell, 137 S. Ct. 1549 (2017) both followed and provided further clarification as to the limited application of general personal jurisdiction. In BNSF, for example, the Court stated: "Our precedent, however, explains that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause does not permit a State to hale an out-of-state corporation before its courts when the corporation is not 'at home' in the State and the episode-in-suit occurred elsewhere." The consideration should be, then, whether the defendant is "at home" in Maryland. In the past, the Court has found that "at home" or the "principal place of business," is where "the corporation's officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation's activities," i.e., where the corporation is headquartered, where it keeps its corporate records, and where it holds its board meetings. Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 80-81 (2010). It thus apparent that establishing general personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant is a tough hill to climb.


With respect to specific personal jurisdiction, it is difficult, of course, to analyze whether there exists specific personal jurisdiction in a Baltimore City asbestos case where the complaint provides merely "steelworker from 1964 to 1974" or "auto mechanic from 1970 to 1975" as allegations of exposure. A foreign defendant is left guessing whether its conduct in Maryland actually gives rise to the cause of action. Accordingly, the complaints routinely filed in Baltimore provide little or no facts that would establish specific personal jurisdiction, and a foreign defendant may want to move for a dismissal on such grounds.


There are, of course, many considerations when determining whether a foreign defendant should move to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Challenging personal jurisdiction involves an evaluation of the risks to the defendant in that particular case, even when the rule of law seems to be on the side of the foreign defendant. Defendants contemplating a jurisdictional challenge should consult with counsel familiar with the issues in Maryland asbestos litigation and then develop an appropriate strategy that considers the likely facts to be developed in the case, the profile of the defendant, and the posture of the case, among other issues.


 At MacDonald Law Group, we handle a broad array of matters involving the defense of toxic tort and asbestos-related claims.  Should you have any questions on toxic tort or asbestos-related topics, please contact us using the email or phone contacts found on our website at www.macdonaldlawgroup.com.

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