The Issue of Personal Jurisdiction Heats Up in Madison County Asbestos Litigation

Over recent months there have been several hearings related to personal jurisdiction held before The Honorable Steven Stobbs, the Madison County, Illinois, judge assigned to asbestos matters. Each of these hearings involve jurisdictional disputes between attorneys from Plaintiff’s firm, The Gori Law Firm, and non-resident Defendants. While Gori did not disagree in any case that the Defendants were, in fact, non-residents of the State of Illinois, they argued that in the cases at issue, specific jurisdiction was potentially present despite no evidence of use of the Defendant’s product within the State of Illinois. As opposed to general jurisdiction (under which a Defendant may be sued in a jurisdiction because their “affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render them essentially at home in the forum State”[1]), specific jurisdiction allows suit against a non-resident Defendant where the dispute arises “out of the contacts between the Defendant and the forum.”[2]

In July of this year, a group of non-resident Defendants referred to as Emerson brought to hearing their Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction. The Complaints in each case were void of allegations of a basis for personal jurisdiction. Judge Stobbs ruled that Plaintiff’s counsel must amend their complaints to add such allegations in order to move forward with discovery on the issue. He noted that while he favors personal jurisdiction discovery, there must be an allegation of jurisdiction in the complaint to allow it.[3] A couple of follow-up hearings were held on this matter resulting in a finding that the complaints had been appropriately amended and responses to personal jurisdiction discovery were ordered.

In October, Gori brought a Motion to Compel against non-resident Defendant Conwed, asking the court to force certain personal jurisdiction discovery responses. Among the deficiencies complained of was an interrogatory seeking information regarding a corporate shareholder that was a Wisconsin corporation until 1965, when it moved to Illinois. Conwed argued that even if the shareholder was an Illinois resident, there was no relevance to personal jurisdiction as to Conwed. Judge Stobbs agreed that ordinarily the residency of a shareholder would not be relevant, but he found that in this case where there were few shareholders, discovery on the issue was relevant to develop information as to who the shareholder was, its function as to Conwed’s operations, and any connection it may have had to the company’s products.

These hearings follow Judge Stobbs’ 2018 order finding specific jurisdiction against non-resident Defendant Avon Products, Inc., in a case involving an out-of-state Plaintiff’s decedent, Connie Mitchell, who used the Defendant’s product only at out-of-state locations. Facts considered in the decision were that Avon manufactured, tested, sold, and distributed products from a facility in Illinois as well as facilities in other states for a period of time and then later doing so exclusively in Illinois, both time periods being potentially relevant to plaintiff’s use of the Defendant’s products. Further, it was noted that Avon contracted with an Illinois consulting laboratory that negligently performed its product testing. While Judge Stobbs noted that contracting with an Illinois laboratory, alone, is not enough to find specific jurisdiction, there existed enough connection between Avon’s activities in Illinois and plaintiff’s claims to confer specific jurisdiction.

Following Judge Stobbs’ finding in the Mitchell case, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in Rios v. Bayer (2020 IL 125020) in June 2020.  In Rios, however, the Court declined to find specific jurisdiction.  Here, non-resident Bayer developed their product (an Essure contraceptive device) out of state but conducted clinical trials in Illinois and other states, put on a physician training program in Illinois, and developed a marketing campaign for the product in Illinois. The court found that none of these activities directly related to the out-of-state Plaintiff’s claims of injury. The court mentioned that Bayer’s Illinois activities did not include anything relevant to the claimed injury, such as the product being developed or manufactured in Illinois, the Plaintiff or Plaintiff’s physician receiving false information about the product in Illinois, the product being implanted in Illinois, or Plaintiff’s doctors being trained by Bayer in Illinois.

There have been no post-Rios rulings on specific jurisdiction in Madison County. In light of Rios, it will likely be difficult for an out-of-state Plaintiff to establish specific jurisdiction against a non-resident Defendant where the injury did not occur in Illinois. However, it is clear that Judge Stobbs will allow broad jurisdictional discovery in order to develop any relevant facts that may exist before finding the issue is ripe for a ruling.

Special thank you to Sean P. Sheehan for providing research that assisted in the writing of this article.

[1] Daimler AG v. Barbara Bouman, 134 S.Ct. 746, 754 (2014) (quoting Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 131 S.Ct. 2846, 2851 (2011).

[2] Spartan Motors, Inc. v. Lube Power, Inc., 337 Ill.App.3d 556, 561 (2003).

[3] Transcript of Madison County, Illinois, Asbestos Motion Docket dated July 15, 2020, at pg. 21.

  • Audra L. Zobrist

    Audra L. Zobrist focuses her practice on the defense of asbestos toxic torts involving products and premises liabilities. She represents clients in both Illinois and Missouri. Additionally, Audra represents individuals seeking ...

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Kerri Forsythe

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