1st District Turns up Heat on Asbestos Plaintiff’s Claim of Personal Jurisdiction

In Campbell v. General Electric, 2018 IL App (1st) 173051, the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, recently reversed the Cook County Circuit Court’s finding of personal jurisdiction over General Electric (“GE”) in an asbestos case. In directing that GE be dismissed from the case due to a lack of personal jurisdiction, the court struck down the plaintiff’s claims of general jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction, consent jurisdiction and jurisdiction by necessity. And in so doing, the Court followed the principles set forth by the United States Supreme Court in two recent, landmark jurisdiction cases:  Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117 (2014) and Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017)

In addressing the plaintiff’s general jurisdiction arguments, the Court reiterated the “at home” standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Daimler. A defendant is “at home” when its contacts are so continuous and systematic that it can be sued in the state regardless of where the conduct at issue occurred. In other words, you can be sued in that state for anything and everything.  The classic examples of where a corporate defendant is at home are where it has its principal place of business and where it is incorporated. In Campbell, GE was incorporated in New York and had its principal place of business in Massachusetts. By these measures, GE clearly was not at home in Illinois. The Court next evaluated GE’s activities in Illinois as compared to its activities nationwide and worldwide to determine if its other contacts were sufficient to otherwise find it at home in Illinois. The record established that GE had been licensed to do business in Illinois since 1897, had 3,000 employees in Illinois, had 30 facilities in Illinois, and only two percent of GE’s U.S. income was generated in Illinois. Based on these statistics, the Court reasoned that this was a small percentage of GE’s overall business when compared to the fact that GE was in 180 countries, half its revenue was in foreign countries, it had 330,000 employees worldwide and 125,000 employees in the United States. Accordingly, GE was not at home in Illinois as is required under Daimler to establish general jurisdiction.

The Court also found the plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to establish specific jurisdiction. The Court highlighted that specific jurisdiction exists when the controversy involves the defendant’s activities that occurred in the state. The plaintiff claimed at deposition that he was exposed to GE electric furnaces while working at Republic Steel in Illinois in the 1960s. Therefore, if the plaintiff had in fact been exposed to a GE furnace while working in Illinois, this may have been sufficient to have established specific jurisdiction. But the plaintiff failed to get over the first hurdle as the Court found that he did not have personal knowledge to testify as to the manufacturer of the furnaces at Republic Steel. He admitted that he saw no tags or writing on the furnaces that suggested they were GE products, and ultimately admitted that he really could not say that the furnaces were GE products. In the Court’s view, the plaintiff simply was speculating that the furnaces were GE. Plus, a former GE employee attested that GE never manufactured an electric furnace for melting steel. Without competent evidence of exposure to GE products in Illinois, the plaintiff could not meet his prima facie case for establishing specific jurisdiction.

Finally, having analyzed the two established categories of personal jurisdiction, general and specific, the Court summarily discarded the plaintiff’s two other theories of jurisdiction: consent jurisdiction and jurisdiction by necessity. In doing so, the Court stressed that GE’s registration to do business in Illinois was not consent. GE’s having defended other suits in Illinois without objecting to jurisdiction and suing in Illinois was not consent. And the fact that the plaintiff could not sue everyone in his asbestos lawsuit in one state was insufficient justification to establish a new jurisdictional doctrine, “jurisdiction by necessity.” This doctrine had not been previously adopted by United States Supreme Court, or any other court for that matter.

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Kerri Forsythe

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