Two Navy Defendants Dismissed on Personal Jurisdiction Grounds Under U.S. Supreme Court Ford Decision

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, April 28, 2021

The plaintiff alleged that he was exposed to asbestos during his 22-year career as a Machinist’s Mate in the U.S. Navy from 1958 to 1980. He filed suit against numerous defendants, including Alfa Laval, Inc. and Viad Corp. in Florida. Only one of the ships on which the plaintiff served while in the Navy was stationed in Florida during the time that he was onboard—the U.S.S. Pawcatuck, which was docked in Jacksonville between 1966 and 1968.

Alfa Laval did not dispute that it or one of its predecessors supplied equipment to the United States Navy that was installed on the Pawcatuck. However, it argued that any such equipment would have been installed aboard the ship in Pennsylvania, where the ship was constructed between 1945 and 1946. Alfa Laval argued that its equipment wound up in Florida 20 years later only at the direction of the U.S. Navy, which is a third party over which it had no control. Viad similarly argued that if its predecessor company supplied equipment that was installed aboard the Pawcatuck, this installation would not have occurred in Florida. Both Alfa Laval and Viad thus moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s case for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The court previously found that there was no general personal jurisdiction over Alfa Laval, and the plaintiff conceded that there was no general personal jurisdiction over Viad. As such, the inquiry before the court was whether there was specific jurisdiction over these defendants. Citing to Eleventh Circuit precedent, the court noted that specific jurisdiction exists if “(1) the plaintiff has established that his claims ‘arise out of or relate to’ at least one of the defendant’s contacts with the forum; (2) the plaintiff has demonstrated that the defendant ‘purposefully availed’ itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state; and (3) the exercise of jurisdiction would not violate traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” See Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A. v. Mosseri, 736 F.3d 1339, 1355 (11th Cir. 2013). The court found that at issue in this case was the first prong—whether the plaintiff’s claims arose out of or related to the defendants’ contacts with Florida. Noting that the Florida long-arm statute was satisfied as to both defendants, the court focused its inquiry on due process considerations.

Applying the framework set out in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on personal jurisdiction, Ford Motor Co. v. Monte Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., the court found that the plaintiff could not show that Alfa Laval or its predecessors served a market in Florida for the type of product at issue in the case, and the only fact linking the plaintiff’s claims against Alfa Laval to Florida was his brief stay on the Pawcatuck while it was docked in Jacksonville. The court found that “this connection came about only because the Navy—a third-party over whom Alfa Laval exerts no control—directed the ship to Florida twenty years after Alfa Laval’s predecessors allegedly provided the offending equipment.” The court held that “[s]uch a serendipitous connection does not warrant the exercise of personal jurisdiction.”

With regard to Viad, the court found that despite the plaintiff’s assertion that Viad engaged in various business activities in Florida, such as managing fuel tank lines at the Miami and Orlando International airports, being involved in litigation in Florida, operating as the parent company of a cruise line in Florida, and having an unrelated business based on Florida, these activities did not relate to the plaintiff’s claims against Viad, and were therefore not sufficient to trigger personal jurisdiction. The court reiterated that the only fact linking the plaintiff’s claims against Viad to Florida was his brief stay on the Pawcatuck while docked in Jacksonville. The court therefore found that “[w]hat is needed—and what is missing here—is a ‘strong relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation—the essential foundation of specific jurisdiction.”

As such, both motions to dismiss were granted.

Read the full decision here.