In the wake of the Daimler, BNSF, and Bristol-Myers Squibb opinions recently issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, defendants in asbestos cases throughout the country have been challenging personal jurisdiction with greater success. Yet, Pennsylvania remains a difficult jurisdiction for defendants to assert the defense, due to Pennsylvania’s long arm statute. No Pennsylvania state appellate court or federal court has yet ruled on the general personal jurisdiction issue in an asbestos case since the Bristol-Myers Squibb opinion was issued. In the meantime, a split among courts continues, as explained below.
Pennsylvania law explicitly states that qualification as a foreign corporation under the laws of Pennsylvania provides a sufficient basis for the exercise of personal jurisdiction. See 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5301(a). The statute provides, in relevant part:
The existence of any of the following relationships between a person and this Commonwealth shall constitute a sufficient basis of jurisdiction to enable the tribunals of this Commonwealth to exercise general personal jurisdiction over such person … (2) Corporations.—(i) Incorporation under or qualification as a foreign corporation under the laws of this Commonwealth. (ii) Consent, to the extent authorized by the consent.
42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5301(a).
Prior to the issuance of the three Supreme Court decisions noted above, courts routinely held that a foreign corporation has consented to personal jurisdiction in Pennsylvania by registering to do business in Pennsylvania. But those recent Supreme Court rulings have upended the law regarding personal jurisdiction, making it much more difficult for courts to assert either specific or general jurisdiction over a defendant. In Daimler, the Supreme Court held that, in order to comport with due process, general jurisdiction is only proper in the forums where a corporation is reasonably regarded as home—the place of incorporation and the principal place of business, or in the “exceptional case” another forum where the corporation’s operations are “so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State.” Daimler, 134 S. Ct. at 761 n.19. In BNSF, the Supreme Court reiterated: “The Fourteenth Amendment due process constraint described in Daimler … applies to all state-court assertions of general jurisdiction over nonresident defendants; the constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued.” BNSF, 137 S. Ct. at 1558–59. The Supreme Court further expounded that “in-state business … does not suffice to permit the assertion of general jurisdiction over claims … that are unrelated to any activity occurring in [the forum state].” Id. at 1559.
Asbestos defendants throughout the county have seized on that language by arguing that where the alleged exposure has no connection to the forum state, and the defendant is not incorporated and does not maintain its principal place of business in the forum state, the court cannot exercise general personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Defendants have done so in Pennsylvania federal courts, although no rulings have yet been issued on those motions. However, courts continue to rule in other matters that the Pennsylvania long arm statute still confers general personal jurisdiction on defendants who are not at home in Pennsylvania. As stated by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Plumbers’ Local Union No. 690 Health Plan v. Apotex Corp., No. CV 16-665, 2017 WL 3129147 (E.D. Pa. July 24, 2017): “Neither Daimler nor [BNSF], however, addressed the interplay between consent to jurisdiction and the due process limits of general jurisdiction. Because the Supreme Court has not addressed the viability of consent to jurisdiction post-Daimler, courts in this district have continued to apply the precedent established by the Third Circuit in Bane to hold that registration to do business in Pennsylvania constitutes consent to jurisdiction.” Id. at *10-11.
Defendants universally submit that such a ruling exceeds the due process constraint articulated in Daimler and BNSF. They argue that if in-state business does not suffice to permit the assertion of general jurisdiction, registration should not either, regardless of what the long arm statute says. However, until an appellate court rules that the general jurisdiction provision of the long arm statute is contravened by the recent Supreme Court decisions, some Pennsylvania courts will continue to assert general personal jurisdiction over defendants who are not at home in Pennsylvania. Until then, asbestos defendants will still likely be hailed into court in Pennsylvania, even where the subject lawsuit has no connection to the Commonwealth.