Dryer Felt Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Personal Jurisdiction Denied

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina, February 28, 2020

United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina recently denied a dryer felt defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit after William Brock was employed as an electrician and maintenance worker at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem for over 30 years, and developed mesothelioma after exposure to various asbestos-containing materials. The dryer felt defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). First, the court noted that the dryer felt defendant was required to file an answer within 21 days of service of the summons and complaint, and failed to do so in a timely manner. While there was an informal agreement between the dryer felt defendant and the plaintiffs’ counsel, there was no formal request for an extension filed with the court, as required by the court and its prescribed local rules. Nonetheless, the court considered the consented to extension from the plaintiffs’ counsel to constitute excusable neglect pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(b)(1)(B), and otherwise considered the defendant’s motion on its merits.

The court acknowledged that under well-established federal jurisprudence, it was only authorized to exercise personal jurisdiction over the dryer felt defendant if (1) North Carolina’s long-arm statute authorized it; and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction comported with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Universal Leather, LLC v. Koro AR, S.A., 773 F. 3d 553, 558 (4th Cir. 2014). Furthermore, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the two avenues by which a federal can[DS1]  exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant—general and specific jurisdiction. In the present case, the plaintiffs’ sole assertion of jurisdiction over the dryer felt defendant was specific jurisdiction. With regards to the requirements to establish specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, the Fourth Circuit in Universal Leather established the following three-part test: “(1) the extent to which the defendant purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum state; (2) whether the plaintiff’s claims arose out of those activities; and (3) whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction is constitutionally reasonable.” Id.

In the present case, the plaintiffs alleged that the dryer felt defendant sold and supplied asbestos-containing dryer felts in North Carolina, and established this allegation through a collection of invoices showing that the defendant sold felts directly to the RJ Reynolds Plant at issue. In opposition to this evidence, the defendant produced an affidavit of a longtime company employee, who stated that the defendant possessed no sales records of any dryer felts to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, and more generally, did not manufacture or sell any dryer felts for use in the tobacco industry at any time period. Due to the conflicting factual dispute, the court, viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, concluded that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged purposeful availment for purposes of specific jurisdiction in North Carolina. For the second prong, the plaintiffs alleged that Brock developed mesothelioma and related injuries from his exposure to asbestos-containing materials, including the defendant’s dryer felts, while at work. As such, the court found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the claims asserted arose out of the defendant’s contacts with North Carolina. Regarding the third prong, the court held that the plaintiffs’ allegations indicated that the defendant sold hazardous products directly to the RJ Reynolds plant, and Brock was injured as a result. Therefore, adjudication in North Carolina comported with the traditional concept of fair play and substantial justice, and was constitutionally reasonable.

As a result, the court held that the plaintiffs satisfied their burden of setting forth a prima facie case for the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction by the court over the dryer felt manufacturer. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss for personal jurisdiction was denied as a matter of law.

Read the case decision here.