Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Preciado v. Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 24, 2023)

Sometimes lawyers win cases because the case is good, even if the lawyer's not.

Sometimes lawyers loses cases because the case is bad, even though the lawyer's good.

These are simply the facts of life. The merits matter. A ton.

But, sometimes, lawyers lose cases even though the case is good. In my mind, this is one of those cases.

It's a fairly high-value personal injury case. There's a bus accident on I-15 that kills one of the plaintiffs and injures another. These two plaintiffs sue several different defendants in San Diego for that accident, including but not limited to the manufacturer of the bus chassis. Defendant moves to quash, saying that it's a Delaware company with its principal place of business in South Carolina and doesn't have the required minimum contacts with California sufficient to create personal jurisdiction.

The trial court grants the motion to quash, and the Court of Appeal affirms.

My view, by contrast, is that there's very likely personal jurisdiction in California.

The weird thing is that these two statements are not necessarily inconsistent with each other.

Justice Irion's opinion is pretty darn good, honestly, in setting forth and evaluating the often-difficult issues that arise when dealing with specific jurisdiction disputes like this one. Okay, maybe the reader could have done without the page and a half about general personal jurisdiction, because obviously that doesn't exist, and no one (as far as I can tell, anyway) is even arguing that it does. But whatever. That's a nit. On the merits, I like a ton of what Justice Irion says.

Now, I think Justice Irion may rely in part slightly too much on the Supreme Court's opinion in Ford Motor Company than is due. Yes, Ford Motor Company tells us what's sufficient for jurisdiction. But it doesn't demark the boundaries of what's insufficient. For that, at least for "stream of commerce" cases like the one at issue here, you've got to go back to the Supreme Court's opinion in Asahi. And that's one's a 4-4-1 opinion. Justice Irion cites Justice O'Connor's 4-vote opinion in Asahi, and rightly so; if the defendant here did any one of the things listed therein, then, yep, there's personal jurisdiction. But 4 justices agreed with Justice Brennan that knowledge of your product ending up in the forum state -- which virtually certainly existed here -- was good enough even without the "additional conduct" listed by O'Connor, and Justice Steven says that knowledge plus a certain number of continuous sales gets his vote too, resulting (as there) in a majority on that score. So the opinion is a little quick to jump to the belief that you've got to prove something more than knowledge; I'm not sure that's (entirely) right.

But Justice Irion is right that if you've got one of the types of additional conduct, then there's personal jurisdiction, but that (as Ford Motor Company and BMS suggest) you've got to make the appropriate focus on which types of products you're talking about. It makes a difference if it's the exact same model or chassis type that's in the forum, or an entirely dissimilar model, or something in between.

And on that point, the Court of Appeal's opinion is right: we don't have much here. Because while the plaintiff's attorney has submitted a variety of printouts from the Internet about what the defendant says about the extent of its sales, there are a lot of details we don't know. Is it the exact same type of chassis? Do the other types of chassis that the defendant sell have similar problems? Sure, there are apparently service stations in California, but what precisely is the defendant's relationship with them, and do they serve this type (or a related type) of chassis? What's the scoop.

We don't know. Because (1) plaintiff doesn't know yet, since it hasn't conducted discovery, and (2) plaintiff didn't either (a) propound discovery on these jurisdictional issues before the motion to quash was heard (despite propounding discovery on the merits), or (b) give the court details in its opposition to the motion to dismiss about precisely what discovery it was going to seek and what it thought might be thereby revealed that would compel denial of defendant's motion.

That's a problem. I strongly, strongly suspect that if counsel for plaintiff had been specific, the trial court and/or the Court of Appeal would have allowed jurisdictional discovery. Moreover, in my view, I very much believe that this discovery -- properly argued -- would have demonstrated that the defendant was, indeed, subject to jurisdiction in California.

But that didn't happen. Not because the facts were bad. I bet they were good. It's just that the lawyer for the plaintiff didn't obtain and submit them -- or even submit a concrete plan to the court for getting 'em.

Two lessons, I think, can be derived from this opinion. One specific, one general.

First, if you're a plaintiff and want jurisdictional discovery, be specific. Submit particular discovery requests that you want to propound and say what you think you're going to discover from them. Or, better yet, go ahead and propound 'em before the motion to dismiss is heard (indeed, even before you file your opposition). The Court of Appeal and trial court both seemed to put a fair amount of weight on the fact that the plaintiff here propounded tons of discovery before the hearing on the motion to quash but all about the merits, not jurisdiction. That's a bad look. It resulted here, in my view, in losing a motion -- in a high-value case, no less -- that should have been won.

Second, more generally, even if you're a super good lawyer, know your respective lane. By all accounts, counsel for plaintiff here is a fairly sophisticated (or at least successful) personal injury lawyer. Great. You're good at getting clients, negotiating settlements, and perhaps evoking sympathy from a jury. Those skills are incredibly valuable.

But that doesn't mean that you're necessarily Mr. Personal Jurisdiction. That's an important piece of the case. Critical, even, for getting this particular defendant on the hook. You gotta recognize that. Which in turn means thinking about bringing in someone who might be better than you (or at least more familiar with) these types of doctrinal fights. Otherwise, you risk results like the one that transpired here.

Maybe this particular defendant wasn't important enough to really focus on. Maybe plaintiff didn't really care if the manufacturer was left off the hook.

But it seems like a fairly big-ticket case, where one of the plaintiffs died and the other was presumably non-trivially injured. And the defendant definitely has deep pockets, plus insurance.

Probably worthwhile to make the hard core effort, and to make sure it's done right.