District Court’s Denial of Manufacturer’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction Reversed Upon Reconsideration on the Basis of Lack of Specific Jurisdiction

The plaintiff, who developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos products while working in Massachusetts between the 1940s and 1970s, sued the defendant Union Carbide and others in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, where he later moved, seeking compensatory damages pursuant to causes of action for negligence, strict liability, and failure to use reasonable care. The defendant subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. The District Court denied the motion. The defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration as to the District Court’s general jurisdiction findings. The District Court then found that although it lacked general jurisdiction over the defendant, it nonetheless had specific jurisdiction over the defendant and thus declined to dismiss the defendant from the case. The defendant then filed a second motion to reconsider as to the District Court’s findings on specific jurisdiction. The primary question was whether the District Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the defendant comported with federal due process requirements under the 14th Amendment.

Upon reconsideration, the District Court reversed itself and dismissed the defendant from the case for lack of specific jurisdiction. In doing so, the District Court relied heavily on the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court holding in Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115, 188 L. Ed.2d 12 (2014), a case which heavily discussed specific jurisdiction. Under Walden, “[f]or a State to exercise jurisdiction consistent with due process, the defendant’s suit-related conduct must create a substantial connection with the forum State.” Id. at 1121-22. “[M]ere injury to a forum resident is not a sufficient connection to the forum.” Id. at 1125 (internal citations omitted). “The proper question is not where the plaintiff experienced a particular injury or effect but whether the defendant’s conduct connects him to the forum in a meaningful way.” Rautenberg v. Falz, 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 3786, *4 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. March 11, 2016) (citing Walden, 134 S. Ct. at 1125). The District Court went on to state that “[p]ut another way, ‘[t]he relationship must arise out of contacts that the ‘defendant himself’ creates within the forum State’” and later concluded, following a synopsis of Eleventh Circuit’s “minimum contacts” test that the contact must be a “but-for” cause of the tort at issue (internal citations omitted). The first prong of the Eleventh Circuit’s “minimum contacts” test is whether “the defendant must have contacts related to or giving rise to the plaintiff’s cause of action.” (internal citation omitted). The District Court did not believe the defendant had any such contacts. Against this backdrop, the District Court found that the plaintiff:

“[C]annot establish a prima facie case for the Court’s personal jurisdiction over Defendant Union Carbide. Mr. Waite came into contact with Defendant’s products in Massachusetts. He moved to Florida in the late 1970s, and did not thereafter come into contact with Defendant’s product. The fact that Mr. Waite’s malignant mesothelioma did not manifest until he moved to Florida, while relevant, does not conclusively resolve the matter; ‘mere injury to a forum resident is not a sufficient connection to the forum’…Mr. Waite only became ill in Florida…because he moved to Florida. Under Walden, that connection is simply too tenuous to connect Union Carbide with Florida ‘in any meaningful way.’”

In reversing its position on specific jurisdiction, the District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that there were several facts that could have been used to establish “suit-related conduct” in Florida by the defendant, including the fact it had been registered to do business in Florida since 1949, that the defendant sold massive quantities of asbestos fiber to joint compound manufacturers in Florida throughout the 1960s and 1970s, that the defendant was “fully aware” that joint compound manufacturers were selling its product, including the “deadly asbestos” throughout the United States “without warning end users,” that the defendant had “dozens of Florida customers” and “owned a plant in Florida prior to 1987,” and that the defendant had previously been involved in lawsuits in Florida. The District Court rejected the aforementioned factual contentions since the “defendant’s Florida activities did not injure” the plaintiff, but rather its activities in Massachusetts did. Accordingly, the District Court found that the requisite minimum contacts required for specific jurisdiction had not been established, reversed its prior ruling, and dismissed the matter as to the defendant on both general and specific jurisdiction grounds.