court of appeals

First Department Reverses Denial of Valve Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss on Personal Jurisdiction Grounds

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Court: Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, First Department

Plaintiff Ralph Vavala alleged his lung cancer diagnosis arose from alleged exposure to asbestos from a variety of products, including valves manufactured by the defendant, Jenkins Bros., during his employment as a steamfitter and welder from the 1960s through the 1980s. Upon commencement of the plaintiff’s lawsuit, Jenkins Bros. moved to dismiss the complaint against it for lack of personal jurisdiction. In response, the plaintiff cross-moved for jurisdictional discovery. On December 6, 2021, the trial court denied Jenkins Bros.’s motion, and granted the plaintiff’s cross-motion. Jenkins Bros. appealed.

In support of its motion to dismiss, Jenkins Bros. proffered an affidavit and deposition testimony from David Boisvert, the former president of the company. Boisvert attested that from the 1960s through the 1980s, the Jenkins Bros. headquarters was located in Bridgeport, Conn., which was the company’s “nerve center” where Jenkins Bros. conducted the vast majority of its business transactions.  

Jenkins Bros. also maintained a distribution warehouse in Fairfield, Conn. Boisivet averred that all Jenkins Bros. products were manufactured, sold, and distributed from its two Connecticut locations. While Boisvert acknowledged that Jenkins Bros. also maintained an executive office in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, this office was not where orders were acknowledged or where the company’s day-to-day operations took place. Boisvert also acknowledged that for a short period of time, the company’s former vice president of sales was based out of the New York office, however a very small number of the Jenkins Bros. sales force worked out of the New York office during this time. And, in or around April 1980, that office closed.

Specific personal jurisdiction exists over a nondomiciliary defendant if (1) the defendant conducted sufficient activities to have transacted business in the state and (2) the plaintiff’s claims arose from those transactions. Here, on appeal, the First Department found that the trial court should have granted Jenkins Bros.’s motion to dismiss because there was no evidence suggesting that its minimal activity in New York had an articulable nexus to the plaintiff’s injury. Moreover, the trial court should have denied the plaintiff’s cross motion because the plaintiff did not offer a sufficient basis to justify jurisdictional discovery. Rather, all conduct giving rise to the plaintiff’s claims occurred in Connecticut. The plaintiff was not a New York resident, did not purchase or work with Jenkins Bros.’s valves in New York, and did not claim to have suffered harm in New York.

The First Department also noted that the plaintiff similarly failed to demonstrate that Jenkins Bros. was subject to jurisdiction under CPLR 302(a)(1), which requires that a tortious act be committed within the state, because the purportedly tortious act occurred in Connecticut, not in New York. For these reasons, the First Department unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision and granted the defendant’s motion without costs.

Read the full decision here.