Personal jurisdiction has been a hot-button issue in courts throughout the country for the past several years. Many personal jurisdiction decisions involve personal injury or product liability actions where the development, marketing and sale of a product are key in the jurisdictional analysis. In such cases, a Defendant’s intended market and, consequently, where it could anticipate being sued, is more readily apparent than in other cases with markedly different facts.
Interstate pollution cases present a host of unique legal issues that Plaintiffs typically do not encounter in other run-of-the mill cases. If a Plaintiff filed suit in the state in which the injury was sustained rather than where the pollution was discharged, the first hurdle such a Plaintiff will likely encounter is a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Our firm successfully defeated such a challenge late last year before the Supreme Court of Alabama.
The Supreme Court held that state courts in Alabama had jurisdiction over two lawsuits filed by the Water Works and Sewer Boards for the City of Gadsden and Town of Centre against numerous out-of-state companies that sell or use the chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their operations. These cases were originally filed in the Circuit Courts of Etowah County and Cherokee County against PFAS manufacturers and the carpet industry that uses them to impart stain-, water-, and soil-resistance to their flooring products in Georgia.
The lawsuits allege that the Defendants sold PFAS or discharged wastewater contaminated with PFAS despite knowing it would survive treatment by the local water treatment facility in Dalton, Georgia, and ultimately contaminated the Conasauga River, which is an upstream tributary of the Coosa River, which provides water to each municipality. The Defendants’ activities allegedly caused the high levels of numerous PFAS compounds, which have been linked to various health issues, found at Gadsden and Centre’s water intakes.
The Defendants sought dismissal on various grounds, but primarily argued that Alabama courts lacked personal jurisdiction to hear the cases, claiming that the “suit-related activity” (i.e. the sale or discharge of PFAS) occurred in Georgia rather than in Alabama. The Etowah County and Cherokee County Circuit Courts disagreed, holding that personal jurisdiction was proper in Alabama because the Defendants “purposefully directed” water contaminated with PFAS at downstream users, including the water treatment facilities in Gadsden and Centre.
The Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged that it had not been presented with a case with similar facts. Being a case of first impression, the Court reviewed decisions issued by state and federal courts in Washington, Mississippi and Ohio for guidance. Each of those courts held that personal jurisdiction was proper over an out-of-state Defendant who committed an act that ultimately harmed a downstream user located in the forum state. The Court agreed that the analyses used in those analogous cases was more applicable to the facts alleged by Gadsden and Centre than the cases cited by the Defendants. It favorably cited reasoning used by the Ohio Court of Appeals in Triad Hunter, LLC v. Eagle Natrium, LLC, 132 N.E.3d 1272 (2019):
Continuing to release a substance while knowing it travels to a jurisdiction is considered purposeful direction of efforts toward that jurisdiction…The aim can involve a forum resident or the forum state in general.
Applying this reasoning, the Court held that the remaining Defendants “purposefully directed their actions at Alabama” and injured in-state residents. It further stated that “the physical entry of the pollution into Alabama’s water source creates the relationship among the remaining Defendants, Alabama, and the actions”, thereby making jurisdiction proper. The Supreme Court concluded that it would not be burdensome for the Defendants to litigate a case that was less than 100 miles away from Dalton.
The Court correctly held that an Alabama Plaintiff could hold out-of-state polluters accountable in Alabama courts and before a jury of those citizens impacted by the pollution. This is a fair and just result that has similarly been reached in other cases across the country. Beasley Allen looks forward to ensuring the citizens of Gadsden and Centre are not stuck with the bill to clean up their drinking water.
Beasley Allen lawyers are investigating PFAS contamination and personal injury cases. If you have any questions about this subject, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton or Ryan Kral, lawyers in our firm’s Toxic Torts Section. Rhon is Head of this Section.
This story appears in the August 2020 issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, visit the Report online and subscribe.