Mazda Motor Corporation v. Triche

Third DCA

Mazda Motor Corporation v. Triche
3d DCA
2/13/23, Judge Logue
Topics: Personal Jurisdiction

Okay, this is a products liability case against Mazda over the design of Mazda cars, and the issue is whether the Florida circuit court could exercise personal jurisdiction over Mazda, which is incorporated and headquartered in Japan. And, boy, did the judges have a lot to say. The panel opinion, a special concurrence, and a dissent add up to a whopping 52 pages.

Believe it or not, when a Mazda was sold in Florida to a Florida resident and was rear-ended in Florida, it burst into flames and killed the owner. The model involved was a 2016 Mazda3 Sport.

Plaintiff sued multiple Mazda entities, including Mazda Japan, Mazda North America, and Mazda South Florida, alleging claims for strict liability and negligence pertaining to a design or manufacturing defect of the subject vehicle. Mazda North America has submitted itself to the jurisdiction of the court and remains a defendant below. In the course of the litigation, however, 7 Mazda North America insisted it could provide no discovery regarding the design of the vehicle because all such information is possessed only by Mazda Japan, which refuses to provide American-style discovery concerning the design.

Mazda Japan moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction asserting that it was not subject to general or specific jurisdiction because it lacked sufficient minimum contacts with Florida such that the State of Florida’s assertion of personal jurisdiction violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Mazda Japan submitted affidavits that essentially argue that it manufactures and designs the cars in Japan and that the Mazda North America company is separate.

Plaintiff responded with discovery materials showing Mazda Japan’s control over the subsidiaries including documents about reforming their sales market for the U.S. market and developing market strategies for the U.S. market. Mazda Japan has an Executive VP for oversight of North American operations. Mazda Japan designs certain vehicles to comply with U.S. regulations, and it had registered trademarks for the U.S. market particularly for the U.S.-conforming models. It shipped vehicles to Florida. It held showcases in Florida. It ordered a recall in Florida.

The DCA reviewed the burden for establishing personal jurisdiction. If the allegations of the complaint show long-arm jurisdiction, the burden shifts to the defendant provide affidavits contesting jurisdiction. If they do so, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to file affidavits to refute the evidence. If the affidavits can be harmonized, the trial court can simply decide the matter. If the affidavits conflict, an evidentiary hearing is required. In this case, no one asked for an evidentiary hearing, so the burden remained on the plaintiff, but because it was a motion to dismiss, all allegations by the plaintiff had to be taken as true.

Where general jurisdiction is lacking, the court can look to specific personal jurisdiction. In Ford Motor Co. v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 141 S. Ct. 1017, 1028 (2021), the Supreme Court of the United States noted that a resident-plaintiff suing a global car company that extensively serves the state market is a “paradigm example” of how to trigger specific jurisdiction. For due process to be satisfied, the defendant’s contacts with Florida must 1) involve some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum; 2) the contacts must be related to the plaintiff’s cause of action or have given rise to it; and 3) the defendant’s contacts with the forum must be such that the defendant should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.

For purposeful availment (prong one), it’s not enough that a company’s product ends up in Florida. The defendant has to directly or indirectly target the forum. In World–Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980), the Supreme Court identified the following conduct as examples of the “additional conduct” indicating an intent or purpose to serve the market in the forum State: (1) sending products to the forum State; (2) “designing the product for the market in the forum State;” (3) “advertising in the forum State”; (4) “establishing channels for providing regular advice to customers in the forum State;” (5) “marketing the product through a distributor who has agreed to serve as the sales agent in the forum State;” and (6) the sale of the product in the forum State is “not simply an isolated occurrence.” The DCA held that Mazda Japan, not just Mazda North America, satisfied this test. After all, the DCA asked, if not to serve the State’s market, what was the purpose of Mazda Japan designing vehicles for, shipping vehicles to, and continuing to provide technical support in the form of recalls for its vehicles owned in Florida? Alternatively, even if only Mazda 8 North America had taken those actions, Eleventh Circuit precedent has held that where a company enters “into an exclusive agreement with a third party to market its product within the jurisdiction,” that constitutes targeting the forum. And Mazda North America isn’t just a “third party,” it’s a “wholly owned subsidiary” created by Mazda Japan to target the North American market.

Under prong two, the “arise out of or relate to” prong, this one is easy. The lawsuit is related to the purchase and sale of a Mazda vehicle, and the accident also occurred here.

Under prong three, the “fair play and substantial justice” prong, the court more or less admits that once the first prong is satisfied and the defendant has targeted the forum, is it really unfair to make them litigate in that forum? There’s simply not a lot to the third prong once the first is satisfied.

JUDGE LINDSEY CONCURRED SPECIALLY, quoting Justice Gorsuch in noting that personal jurisdiction jurisprudence is kind of a mess. Here, though, the sale of Mazda Japan-designed vehicles in Florida is not an isolated occurrence. To the contrary, Mazda vehicles are sold throughout Florida because Mazda Japan designs its vehicles for the U.S. market, which it serves, albeit indirectly, through an authorized U.S. distributor and authorized Mazda dealers. In other words, the vehicles Mazda Japan designs do not end up in Florida as the result of random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts or of the unilateral activity of another party or a third person. The remainder of the concurrence is devoted to answering the dissent.

JUDGE LOBREE dissented for more than 20 pages, arguing that the majority simply misinterpreted the facts and the Supreme Court precedents and that there was sufficient daylight between the actions of Mazda Japan and Mazda North America that Mazda Japan should be off the hook. https://supremecourt.flcourts.gov/content/download/863283/opinion/210803_DC05_03152023_ 095840_i.pdf

Terry P. Roberts
Terry@YourChampions.com
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC
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