We get mail:
You mention in your “District of Columbia v. Beretta, U.S.A.” post that other commentators, such as Mr. Healy and Mr. Levy, have argued that individual states, not the federal government, should be initiating legislation preventing lawsuits against gun manufacturers. The idea is that businesses can “withdraw from doing business in a state that has an oppressive tort regime.” Your counter-argument, however, is that the latter idea “doesn’t help gun manufacturers who don’t do business in the District of Columbia to begin with.”
But, in fact, can’t businesses withdraw from states to the point where these businesses no longer have the “minimum contacts” necessary for the state courts to assert personal jurisdiction over the businesses? Then the businesses would be avoiding the oppressive tort laws of those states, but the states would not have personal jurisdiction for any lawsuits against these businesses.
It is correct that gun manufacturers will, in litigation, attempt to get themselves out of the case by arguing lack of personal jurisdiction via such precedents as Asahi Metal Industry Co. Ltd. v. Superior Court of California. However, there are two separate issues that prevent Asahi from providing complete relief.
First, plaintiffs will argue that there are minimum contacts that suffice for personal jurisdiction. They’ll argue that the manufacturers placed ads in magazines that would be seen by residents of the state. They’ll argue purposeful availment under the same factual theories that underlie the “nuisance” claims in the Weinstein litigation. Cf. GTE New Media Services v. BellSouth Corp. (D.C. 2000) (plaintiff entitled to discovery whether defendant, while not physically present in District, intended for District residents to do business with it and caused injury within District); LaMarca v. Pak-Mor Mfg. Co. (N.Y. 2000) (distinguishing Asahi to find personal jurisdiction). In the case of the D.C. city council law, the manufacturers may even have problems to the extent they have lobbyists in the area. A particular judge may well decide that it’s a jury issue, and many manufacturers won’t want to take that risk.
Second, even if D.C. courts do not have personal jurisdiction over the manufacturer, little stops a D.C. plaintiff from suing a gun manufacturer in a state where there is personal jurisdiction. For example, in Peterson v. BASF, Minnesota state courts applied the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act to a nationwide class; in Ysbrand v. DaimlerChrysler, Oklahoma state courts applied Michigan law. One can easily imagine a D.C. plaintiff and a well-funded attorney filing suit in Los Angeles County against a California manufacturer asking for application of D.C. law. I think, in such a circumstance, gun manufacturers have strong arguments under the principles behind Phillips Petroleum v. Shutts that, if D.C. has no personal jurisdiction over a defendant, choice-of-law principles cannot be used to apply D.C. law to the defendant in a manner consistent with due process. But the question, to my knowledge, has not yet been resolved definitively; the defendants in Peterson and Ysbrand certainly were within the personal jurisdiction of the forum whose law was applied. Cf. also the different case of Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., where a New York plaintiff was allowed to sue an Ohio/California defendant using New Hampshire courts and laws, solely for the purpose of taking advantage of a favorable statute of limitations.
In short, gun manufacturers have strong arguments for application of the Healy/Levy federalism theory should such a suit actually happen. But plaintiffs get to choose their forum, and a large part of forum-shopping is finding a forum where the courts are less likely to resolve issues of law in favor of the defendant. The advantage of an immunity law is that it removes that uncertainty.
I’ve opened comments on the narrow question of the interrelationship between personal jurisdiction and choice of law. Please keep discussion civil and limited to this issue.
Update:David Hardy provides another example.