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Schmitigal v. Twohig

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Beaufort Division

September 26, 2019




         The following matter is before the court on defendant Ford Motor Company’s (“Ford”) motion to dismiss, ECF No. 9, and motion to stay discovery, ECF No. 10. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Ford’s motion to dismiss. Because the court grants Ford’s motion to dismiss, Ford’s motion to stay is moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is a products liability action that arose from a car accident in which plaintiffs Stanley and Margorie Schmitigal (collectively, “plaintiffs”) were injured. On February 16, 2018, plaintiffs were restrained passengers in their 2014 Ford Edge, which was driven by their daughter. Stanley sat in the front passenger seat and Marjorie sat in the rear passenger seat behind Stanley. While stopped at an intersection on U.S. Highway 278, plaintiffs’ vehicle was struck from behind by defendant Paul Twohig’s (“Twohig”) BMW sedan. Upon impact, plaintiffs’ vehicle’s front passenger seat deformed rearward causing Stanley to travel into the back passenger compartment and strike Marjorie, injuring them both.

         Plaintiffs brought the instant action on May 5, 2019, asserting a negligence claim against Twohig and products liability claims against Ford. Relevant to the motion to dismiss, plaintiffs have asserted against Ford: (1) a strict liability claim, (2) a negligence claim, and (3) a breach of warranty claim, all sounding in products liability and alleging a manufacturing or design defect in the front passenger seat of the 2014 Ford Edge. Ford filed a motion to dismiss on June 25, 2019, ECF No. 9, claiming that the court lacks the constitutional authority to exercise personal jurisdiction over it. Plaintiffs responded to Ford’s motion to dismiss on July 7, 2019, ECF No. 15, and Ford replied to plaintiffs’ response on July 15, 2019, ECF No. 17. The court held a hearing on September 18, 2019. The motion is now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD

         When the defendant challenges personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff has the burden of showing that jurisdiction exists. See In re Celotex Corp., 124 F.3d 619, 628 (4th Cir. 1997). When the court decides a personal jurisdiction challenge without an evidentiary hearing, the plaintiff must prove a prima facie case of personal jurisdiction. See Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 60 (4th Cir. 1993). “In considering the challenge on such a record, the court must construe all relevant pleading allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, assume credibility, and draw the most favorable inferences for the existence of jurisdiction.” In re Celotex Corp., 124 F.3d at 628 (quoting Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989)). However, the court need not “credit conclusory allegations or draw farfetched inferences.” Masselli & Lane, PC v. Miller & Schuh, PA, 2000 WL 691100, at *1 (4th Cir. May 30, 2000) (quoting Ticketmaster-New York, Inc. v. Alioto, 26 F.3d 201, 203 (1st Cir. 1994)).


         A. Ford’s Motion to Dismiss

         Ford argues that plaintiffs cannot show that the court has personal jurisdiction over it. In their response, plaintiffs concede that the court does not have general personal jurisdiction over Ford, but contend that the court may exercise specific personal jurisdiction over Ford. Consequently, resolution of the instant motion requires an analysis of the court’s ability to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over Ford under South Carolina’s long-arm statute and in consideration of Ford’s protections under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. Plaintiffs also request the opportunity to conduct jurisdictional discovery if the court is inclined to find a lack of personal jurisdiction.

         a. Jurisdictional Inquiry

         In evaluating a challenge to personal jurisdiction under a state’s long-arm statute, the court engages in a two-step analysis. Ellicott Mach. Corp. v. John Holland Party Ltd., 995 F.2d 474, 477 (4th Cir. 1993). First, the long-arm statute must authorize the exercise of jurisdiction under the facts presented. Id. Second, if the statute does authorize jurisdiction, then the court must determine if the statutory assertion of personal jurisdiction is consistent with due process. Id. South Carolina’s long-arm statute extends its reach to the outer limits allowed by the Due Process Clause. Foster v. Arletty 3 Sarl, 278 F.3d 409, 414 (4th Cir. 2002). Consequently, the only question before the court is whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would violate due process. ESAB Grp., Inc. v. Centricut, LLC, 34 F.Supp.2d 323, 328 (D.S.C. 1999).

         The due process test for personal jurisdiction involves two components: minimum contacts and fairness. See World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980). Under the minimum contacts test, a nonresident defendant must have certain minimum contacts such that the suit does not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Int’l Shoe Co. v. State of Wash., Office of Unemployment Compensation and Placement, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945). Due process is satisfied if the court asserts personal jurisdiction over a defendant who “purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, ” Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958), such that it “should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there, ” World-Wide Volkswagen, 444 U.S. at 297. After a showing of the defendant’s purposeful availment, the reasonableness inquiry balances any burden on the defendant against countervailing concerns such as the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining relief and the forum state’s interest in the controversy. See id. at 292.

         Specific jurisdiction arises when a cause of action is related to the defendant's activities within the forum state. See S.C. Code Ann. § 36-2-803; Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 (1984). The Fourth Circuit applies a three-part test when evaluating the propriety of exercising specific jurisdiction: (1) whether and to what extent the defendant purposely availed itself of the privileges of conducting activities in the forum state, and thus invoked the benefits and protections of its laws; (2) whether the plaintiff’s claims arise out of those forum-related activities; and (3) whether the exercise of jurisdiction is constitutionally “reasonable.” Christian Sci. Bd. of Dirs. of ...

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