Fourth District Court of Appeal Reverses Trial Court in Broward Auto-Accident Appeal

As the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Marina Dodge, Inc. v. Quinn demonstrates, sometimes the hardest part of a lawsuit is getting the opposing party in court. In Quinn, the Court of Appeals found that the courts of Florida could not exercise personal jurisdiction over two New York auto-retailer corporations that had been sued following a motor vehicle accident in Broward County, Florida.

As noted above, Quinn followed a 2007 motor vehicle accident that led to the serious injury of one of the drivers. The injured driver, the plaintiff in this case, purchased the vehicle involved in the crash in New York four years earlier, when she was still a resident there. Sometime after this transaction but before the accident, the driver relocated to South Florida, where she now resides. After the crash, the seriously injured driver sued the other driver involved in the accident as well as Marina Dodge, Inc. and Webster Auto Brokers, Inc., two New York auto retailing corporations, in the Broward County Circuit Court. With respect to the auto retailers’ liability, the plaintiff argued that the vehicle she purchased in New York was defective and that the defective condition led to the accident and thus her injuries. The corporations both moved to have the claims against them dismissed, arguing that the courts of Florida could not exercise jurisdiction over them. The trial court, however, denied both motions, stating that the corporations had “continuous contact that took place over years with various entities sufficient to permit jurisdiction to lie in the State of Florida.”

Despite the trial court’s certainty on the question of jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal reversed in a unanimous decision. Generally, there are two ways for a plaintiff to show that a court has personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant. First, one can show that the court had specific jurisdiction. For specific jurisdiction to exist, one must first show that the state’s long-arm-statute covers the acts at issue in the suit. If that prong is met, one must then show that there exist sufficient “minimum contacts” between the out-of-state defendant and the state where jurisdiction is sought. For there to be sufficient “minimum contacts,” one must generally demonstrate that the defendant “deliberately [engaged] in significant activities within a State or has created “continuing obligations” between himself and residents of the [state]” such that “he manifestly has availed himself of the privilege of conducting business there.”Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 475-76 (U.S. 1985) (internal quotations marks and citations omitted). Alternatively, one can show that general jurisdiction exists. Since the Florida long-arm-statute provision for general jurisdiction is read coextensively with the constitutional requirement for general jurisdiction, see Caiazzo v. Am. Royal Arts Corp., 73 So.3d 245, 250 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (pdf downloadable link), one must just show that the defendant engaged in “continuous, substantial, and systematic” contact with the state.

After limited discovery, the trial court made four definitive findings in relation to the auto retailer’s contact to the state of Florida, which were as follows:  internet purchases of nine vehicles from a Florida retailer between 2006 and 2009, five transactions with customers with extended warranties purchased in Florida on vehicles that the defendants serviced in New York, registration with an auto-auction business in Florida without any related sales or purchases pursuant to the contract, and receipt of three checks from the Florida subsidiary of a Delaware corporation that is engaged in auto financing arrangements.

The Court of Appeal held that these contacts collectively fell far below the standard necessary for a finding of specific jurisdiction. The court noted that the number of vehicles purchased was a pittance when compared to all the vehicles purchased by the corporations and that the particular vehicle at issue in this suit was not one of the few that had been purchased in Florida. Next, the court noted that work pursuant to the service warranties was fortuitous and not of a variety that was either solicited or performed through formal arrangements with entities in Florida. In addition, the financing arrangement was an attenuated contact through formal engagement with a parent corporation in Delaware, not Florida directly. Finally, although the corporation contracted with an auction business in Florida, the existence of the contract, without action on the contract manifested by purchases or sales, would be insufficient for purposes of finding jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court held that they were insufficient “minimum contacts” and, moreover, that the litigation did not arise out of or relate to these contacts. Since there was no specific jurisdiction, it followed that there was no general jurisdiction, since the burden for continuous, substantial, and systematic contact is greater than that necessary for a finding of specific jurisdiction.

While the plaintiff in Quinn could, in theory, take her claims to a court in New York that would have personal jurisdiction over the corporations, that is unlikely given the burden imposed by inter-state litigation. Even straightforward personal injury suits require a thorough understanding of the fundamental dynamics of litigation, especially with respect to essential requirements such as jurisdiction.

If you’ve been injured in a South Florida motor vehicle accident, you should get the advice of counsel experienced with personal injury litigation, whether or not you anticipate having claims against out-of-state parties. The South Florida injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have the experience your suit demands and are prepared to hear your story. For a free case consultation, click here or call 1-855-800-8000.

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